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I spent three months in Paris conducting research to determine if Paris was as cool to live in as it was to visit; and Cimetière du Père-Lachaise was high on my list of must-see attractions. Of course, my suspicions were confirmed: Paris is indeed the endlessly fascinating, livable city of my dreams were confirmed, but that’s another story entirely. Back to where illustrious dead people rest. Père-Lachaise is slightly off the well-trodden tourist track in the 20th arrondissement and it slipped on my list of sites to visit as my time in Paris sped by.
Then one day my French roommate (I’ll call her Monique) learned that one of her distant half-brothers, Philippe, had passed away and was to be buried at Père-Lachaise. Of course, I offered to accompany her for support but I have to admit, I could barely contain my morbid curiosity. I was going to the famous burial ground not as a wide-eyed tourist searching for Jim Morrison’s grave, but to a real, live funeral!
On that day, Monique and I set out first on the RER and then the métro with vague directions, only to arrive late at the cemetery’s funeral home for the open casket viewing of the body. After quick greetings and introductions, we were whisked off into cars and proceeded to drive through the hallowed gates of the cemetery.
Nothing I had read or heard adequately prepared me for the site of the thousands of tightly packed stone tombs of every description and size. Fascination and curiosity cut through the family’s grief as we negotiated the numerous cobbled lanes and tree-lined avenues to get to the chapel. Being inside the sacred gates of Père-Lachaise is like being in a mini-city filled with smaller replicas of giant monuments, like a petite Paris.
As per usual in Paris, we had to wait almost an hour for the hearse to arrive. While maintaining an appropriate demeanor of somberness, I curiously took in details of our surroundings. To my left was a jaw-dropping family tomb resembling a 30-foot-high Notre-Dame, complete with gargoyles and saintly-looking statues. On and on the structures went—each tomb more uniquely designed than the next—outfitted with sculptures, artwork, stained glass windows, altars and elaborate wrought iron work.
And everywhere you looked, there were tourists with cameras swaggering, water bottles hanging from daypacks and maps open. On this day, that just seemed wrong.
Adding to this less than idyllic picture of everlasting peace and quiet, we were reminded that all of this grandeur could not exist century after century without a good deal of maintenance. As the hearse wound its way down the magnificent chapel street, slowing to let curious tourists cross, the disturbing din of maintenance crews cut through like the devil in mad pursuit. Weed-whackers whirred, hammers pounded and lawn mowers plowed.
The ceremony in the chapel was beautiful, complete with the hauntingly soulful chanting of the priest and a back-up singer/pianist. We then followed the Père-Lachaise burial crew, with coffin in tow, to Philippe’s eternal resting place. No gargoyles or artwork here; just a beautiful, simple slab of thick concrete on top of a raised grave with an engraved plaque. A wealthy brother had anted up the sum required to only rent this coffin-sized spot for 20 years.
If none of the family members renew the lease, the coffin will be removed and the gravesite put up for grabs because there are few vacant plots left. To be buried in Père-Lachaise today, someone either has to “sell” their plot or add higher levels to the tombs of families willing to share their ancestors’ resting grounds.
No doubt about it, Père-Lachaise is one of the hottest real estate markets on earth. But I had to wonder why the brother felt compelled to lay out such hard-earned cash to house a dead body? After all, it’s the soul Catholics worry about most, not the body.
It was later revealed that the brother wanted Philippe to have a better eternal life than the sad, troubled, lonely one he had led on earth. So sweet. And how wonderful that he cared that much for Philippe to pay him this honor.
I rest my case. I only hope that Philippe will forever bask in the fleeting attentions of the millions of tourists who pass by annually, providing him with the acknowledgement and attention he missed in his mortal life. And Jim Morrison, et al., will have to wait for me to pay homage to them some other day.
16, rue de Repos, Paris 20th
Métro: Lines 2 & 3: Père Lachaise; Line 3: Gambetta
Hours: 8:30am-6:00pm Last entry: 15 minutes before closing.
Accessibility: Stairs, paths with ruts and hills may challenge visitors with mobility issues.
Tours: The City of Paris offers tours with advance arrangement. In Paris, call: 01 4071 7560 (toll call).
Karen Henrich is the publisher of TapBooksPublishing.com and is also an author of books and apps about her beloved adopted city, Paris. Please click on her name to read her complete profile.
Tourist with camera ©Martin LeRoy
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