Death in Paris

The biggest green space in Paris is not that green at all. It’s grey. Mostly, anyway, in hues of slate and granite. Right now, perched on the crest between summer’s Indian brilliance and looming winter, it’s also carpeted with the gold of fallen leaves and studded, as it always is, with flowers. The green in Père Lachaise cemetery comes from its manicured remembrance lawns, moss on weathered tombstones and the patina on its statues.

Entering the 44-hectare site is like stepping into another world. It’s not exactly hushed due to the tourists, who visit in endless waves, and the activity that goes with being an operating cemetery, but it is its own alternative universe.

I’ve often thought there was something odd, clearly morbid, about visiting a cemetery as a tourist. But I’ve changed my mind. The other day, I got off an overcrowded bus at Gambetta to walk the scenic route home through the site. For the first time, I went down the eastern side, past the memorials to air disasters and the impressive equestrian statue immortalising General Antranik, an Armenian national hero, only to be stopped in my tracks by the sculptures and monuments to the thousands who died in the death and work camps, and fighting for the Resistance, during World War II. The inscriptions were tough going, as they should be, with numbing figures and graphic details of firing squads, hangings and beheadings. The statues were painful in their beauty.

The man next to me observed to his friend, “It’s really quite overwhelming,” snapping another photo. I followed his gaze over the tombs, crosses and angels in perfect rows down the hillside, sunlight flashing on polished stone and marble, and had to agree.

I continued on my way, past the grave of surrealist poet Paul Éluard and the memorial wall where the last holders-out during the Paris Commune of 1871 were shot. The air smelt of damp earth. It was all pretty sobering.

And yet Père Lachaise is impossibly romantic and beautiful. I suppose that is why the most-worn path is not down the eastern wall, but to Jim Morrison, to Oscar Wilde, to Edith Piaf. It marks pilgrimages to French literature’s heroes Molière and Proust. These are the landmarks I have ringed on the map I give to visiting friends, encouraging them to go, perhaps to stroll further to pay respects to Bizet, Ingres, Chopin, Colette, Delacroix or Brillat-Savarin.

As a place to wander, it’s hard to beat, with all that history and sadness, and love and grief, stories, heritage, pathos and ghosts. The faith and follies, suffering and cruelty of humanity are grouped together like exhibits in a Big Questions museum. I also think, more and more, that rather than avoiding such places, it makes sense to walk among them, that life and death should be side by side. For all the sadness and tragedy, the memorials also celebrate struggles for dignity and freedom, great art, compassion, intelligence, enduring love.

My favourite tomb, if it’s reasonable to have such a thing, is that of Héloïse and Abélard, the ill-fated lovers of the 12th century. Their stone likenesses lie side by side, hands clasped in prayer, under an ornate canopy, their resting place having been relocated to Père Lachaise from the Oratory of the Paraclete monastery in northern France (via the Élysée in Paris) in 1817. The move was a ploy to give this monumental cemetery, which was established in 1804 according to the romantic ideals of the time, more favour with Parisians suspicious of a burial ground within the city limits. (Now there are about a million people buried here.) It has become a tradition to leave letters at the tomb to celebrate true love or the hope of finding it.

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However, for me, the romance is less fascinating than the notion of their intellectual connection. In the early 1100s, she was a renowned scholar of letters, and he of philosophy and theology. He became her teacher, they had an affair, and a child. Their subsequent marriage was kept secret to protect his career in the church, and he later moved her to a nunnery, an act for which her guardian had him castrated. The letters they exchanged after both had retreated to monastic life, and which are the foundation of their myth, suggest that Héloïse didn’t believe in marriage, however, seeing it as bondage or even a form of legal prostitution. Interpretations of their story differ, of course, but it continues to be told, disputed, made and remade to fit the teller’s ideas or politics. Stories are shifting sands, and they tell us what we need now as much as what happened in the past.

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I didn’t stop the other day to see Héloïse and her lover, although I have many times before, to take photos or to listen to another tour guide’s version of their story. It was getting late. Beyond the main gates, the traffic thronged. I joined the pedestrian flow under the green arch and back into the land of the living.

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