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A MATTER OF DEATH AND LIFE (Pottering in Paris 6)

Resurrection and Life

Resurrection and Life

Today is my 71st birthday and Julia is taking me to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise to celebrate it? This is not as bizarre as it sounds because this cemetery is one of Paris’ main ‘tourist attractions’ with many famous and/or rich people buried there. We take the Metro right across Paris from Montmartre and find our way to the main entrance. Once again we are making good use of my brother-in-law Jack’s wonderful Time Out Book of Paris Walks.   The cemetery is very large, with thousands of graves mostly packed in very close to each other. The specific walk we are following is called a History in Marble, written by Alistair Horne, is very informative and amusing. He tells us that this cemetery has been called ‘the grandest address in Paris’ and we can well believe it looking at some of the many grand mausoleums contained here. It would be quite impossible to visit every grave, so Horne takes us to the graves of significant people, or the graves of people with interesting and fascinating and often amusing stories attached. We decide that, even with Horne’s help, there are still too many graves to visit. Having read through the walk beforehand we have made a list of those that we do want to see (for a variety of reasons) and set off to find them. The weather is beautifully warm and dry once again, and there are lots of other ‘tourists’ wandering around as well. We have a helpful map of the cemetery showing where the graves on Horne’s walk are situated, and we have brought another picnic lunch with us because the cemetery also has some wonderful open spaces with seats and flowered gardens and great views over Paris.

The first significant grave we come to is that of those two unhappy soul mates, Héloïse and Abélard. The story of the love between Héloïse and Abélard is one of the best known romances of the middle ages. Abélard was one of the great French philosophers and logicians of his day. Being one of the great teachers of the time, he was hired to teach Héloïse, a rich young noble woman. Héloïse and Abélard started an affair which led to an illegitimate child and a secret marriage. When Héloïse’s uncle found out about the affair, he had Héloïse placed in a convent and Abélard castrated. Although the two lovers were forced to spend the majority of their lives apart, the letters the two sent to each other over the course of the rest of their lives are justly famous. Abélard died in 1142 and Héloïse some 20 years later. It is suggested that Josephine Bonaparte was so moved by their tragic story that, in 1817, she had their bodies re-buried together in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, so that, whereas they were separated in life, they might be joined together in death. A tradition of modern lovers leaving letters at the tomb of these two great, though doomed, lovers has arisen. Even today their ornate tomb is a place where those ‘frustrated in love’ leave messages expressing prayerful hope for the future.

On the way to Héloïse and Abélard’s tomb we pass the final resting places of two colourful characters in French history, both with somewhat ‘saucy’ stories attached to their lives? The first is that of Félix Faure, President of France from 1895 until his death in 1899, made famous by the amorous exploit which brought him to this his final resting place. His presidency is famous for the Franco-Russian alliance and the Dreyfus affair. It is his death, however, that has spread Faure’s name outside of France. In the middle of the Dreyfus case, President Faure was allegedly hard at work in his office, when suddenly the shrieks of a woman in great pain were heard from behind his office door. Rushing into the President’s office, orderlies were confronted with the terrible sight of a naked President, dead of a heart attack, gripping ‘with the fixity of death’ the hair of a buxom redhead in an equal state of undress! The sculpture on top of his grave shows Faure draped in a Tricolour like a sheet, while his hand is gripping the flagpole as if it were his lover? It has been suggested that the inscription on his grave should read ‘mort en brave’ – the conventional wording for a French hero killed in action!

Secondly, tucked in under the exterior wall is the grave of Rachel Felix, the beautiful and disreputable actress of Louis Philippe’s era (King of France from 1830-48), party to what must be one of the most laconic exchanges of love letters on record. After seeing her on stage, the Prince de Joinville sent round a card: ‘Where? When? How much?’ to which she replied with an equal economy of words that would have delighted any male chauvinist: ‘Your place! Tonight! Free!’ True to form, her tomb bears simply the inscription ‘RACHEL’.

A short distance away is the more recent grave of 1960s ‘rock star’ Jim Morrison,  lead singer of The Doors. His tomb is remarkably simple, but it remains one of the most popular in the cemetery. He was born the same year as me so it was quite poignant. Morrison died in 1971 in Paris, of a suspected drug overdose and was buried in an unmarked grave in Père Lachaise. When the cemetery placed a simple marker on the site it was stolen. The same thing happened to a bust of Morrison placed on a simple gravestone. His grave is a place of pilgrimage today for ‘a motley crowd of devotees’ (according to our guidebook), and later in the day this is confirmed to us when a clearly ‘drugged up’ French guy stops us and asks for directions to Jim Morrison’s grave. Julia gives him directions in her best ‘Franglais’. He can’t stop looking at her. Clad in her new yellow beret and yellow scarf, with her ash blonde hair glowing in the autumn sunlight, he clearly thinks that she is an ‘angel’ sent by God to give him directions to the place of his pilgrimage! In 2008 it was reported that the cemetery had been forced to hire a guard to ensure that visitors to Morrison’s grave did no more damage to it or other tombs? Today the grave is a bizarre place, fenced off by the authorities because devotees were rolling ‘spliffs’ and making love on his grave? Many visitors leave gifts on Morrison’s grave, but many also write poems or other messages around the gravestone. One of the most bizarre things is the mass of graphitized chewing gum stuck on nearby trees. Significantly, a simple block of stone marking Morrison’s grave bears the inscription in Greek: ‘Each according to his own daemon.’

Two of the graves, with more amusing effigies attached, can also easily be found. The first belongs to a pair of unfortunate balloonists, Croce-Spinelli and Sivel, two men who (as depicted by the bronze sculpture that surmounts their tomb) lie together hand in hand. This is not because they were a gay couple (as far as anyone knows) but because this intrepid couple went so high in their balloon that they died from lack of oxygen? The second grave, that caused us some amusement, belongs to Victor Noir. Noir was a well-known journalist shot down in 1870 by an enraged Prince Pierre Bonaparte, a cousin of the Emperor. His death, at the age of 22, provided a cause célèbre and his internment provoked a huge Republican demonstration which administered one of the final blows to Louis-Napoleon’s Empire. The body of Victor Noir was moved to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in 1891 and the life-sized bronze statue that marks his grave, is portrayed in a realistic style as though he had just fallen on the street, dropping his hat which is depicted beside him. For some unexplained reason, his tomb has become a fertility symbol. The sculpture has a very noticeable protuberance in Noir’s trousers. This has made it one of the most popular memorials for women to visit in the famous cemetery. Myth says that placing a flower in the upturned top hat after kissing the statue on the lips and rubbing its genital area will enhance fertility, bring a blissful sex life, and a husband within the year. As a result of the legend, those particular components of the otherwise verdigris statue are rather well-worn and shiny. In 2004 a fence was erected around the statue to deter superstitious people from touching it. However, due to protests from the ‘female population of Paris’ it was torn down again.

Another popular tomb in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise is that of Frederic Chopin,  the master of the solo piano. His work still dazzles audiences today, and is the bane of anyone learning to play the piano. Chopin grew up in Warsaw but settled in France in later life. It was in Paris that Chopin died, after a long battle with lung disease. His body was buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, though his heart was removed for burial in his homeland. His grave is usually adorned with many bunches of flowers, and potted geraniums (mysteriously renewed year in and year out by anonymous admirers), and is notable for the statue surmounting it – the muse of music, Euterpe, weeps as she contemplates a broken lyre.  Chopin’s tomb is often used as a ‘dead letterbox’ by clandestine lovers. We notice a note tucked away while we are there, but it is in Italian and poorly written, so we cannot make out what it means?

The most popular tomb (apart from Jim Morrison’s) in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise  is undoubtedly that of the writer, Oscar Wilde. Wilde died in France in 1900 after leaving England to avoid the shame of his conviction for ‘gross indecency.’ His legendary wit is said to have extended to his death bed, where he is supposed to have quipped, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.’ Wilde’s tomb, with an angel displaying its genitalia, was defaced soon after it was put in place (suffering a similar fate to Abélard). Although it was immediately repaired, the damage was repeated. A tradition developed whereby visitors would kiss the tomb after applying lipstick to their mouth, thereby leaving a ‘print’ of their kiss. In 2011 a glass barrier was erected to make the monument ‘kiss proof’ … so now the  screen is covered in lipstick where women (presumably women) kiss the glass?

Another popular tomb is that of  Édith Piaf (who died in 1963) the French cabaret singer who is widely regarded as France’s national diva, and one of France’s greatest international stars.  Her music was often autobiographical with her singing reflecting her life, with her specialty being chanson and ballads, particularly of love, loss and sorrow. There is a coach load of Piaf admirers around the grave as we arrive. As we leave, after taking a photograph or two of the grave, they start to sing La Vie en Rose – one of Piaf’s well known songs. If such a thing were possible, poor Édith must have been turning in her grave at the sound of it – their singing is dreadful!

The Cimetière du Père Lachaise is probably one of the greatest collections of dead human talent in the world. Posted at the entrances are maps pointing visitors towards the most famous graves, but on every path there are monuments which make you stop and stare. It might seem a bit of a macabre way to spend a day, but because there are so many famous tombs, and such artistry in the graves, it becomes something like a visit to a museum. Time does not permit me to mention all that we saw, or write about so much that caused us to stop and think. In this blog I have simply highlighted a few of the memorable graves we saw and the extraordinary people buried there. Photos of these and other graves we saw can be found in the photo album section of my Facebook Page under ‘Paris 2014: Cimetière du Père Lachaise’.

Perhaps the most memorable and eye-catching tomb, however, especially for Julia and myself as Christians, is that of  Georges Rodenbach, the 19th century, Belgian writer and poet. He is not well-known today. His most famous work is his novel, Bruges-la-Morte. Various tombs in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise contain those wonderful words of Jesus (spoken first to Martha, but relevant for us all): ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: the person who believes in me, though they were dead, yet shall they live … and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’ (John 11:25,26). These words of Jesus remind us both of his own Resurrection from the dead – which broke the power of sin and death over us for ever – and the fact that death is not the end for any of us.  Although all of us will one day die (apart from those who are alive when Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ takes place), we will all also be raised from the dead. True, we will then have to stand before God and give account of ourselves, but for those who truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and who have faithfully sought to serve him and others throughout their lives, this will be a time of great joy rather than fear. Georges Rodenbach’s tomb powerfully portrays this moment. It shows a bronze figure dramatically breaking out of the grave, in anticipation of all that Jesus promises to those who take him at his word. Yes, indeed, it really is a matter of death and life!

Low in the grave He lay,
Jesus, my Saviour,
Waiting the coming day,
Jesus, my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed,
Jesus, my Saviour;
Vainly they seal the dead,
Jesus, my Lord!

Death cannot keep his Prey,
Jesus, my Saviour;
He tore the bars away,
Jesus, my Lord!

~ Robert Lowry (1826-99)

Jim Binney

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