Spring, Paris, and Cemetaries

Kathryn Murdock

© Copyright 2022 by Kathryn Murdock 



Photo by Fabrice Nerfin on Unsplash.
Photo by Fabrice Nerfin on Unsplash.

The graves a fine and private place

But none there  I think do embrace

Andrew MarvellTo His Coy Mistress

What Is it about Paris?  Each time I go there it again irritates, infuriates and enchants me. I take it in small doses as one does at the Louvre. For the most part I am content with the museums, croissants and duck. Paris in part has become a cliché. A parody of itself. A tune played over and over. All with a smugness radiated by the Parisians, infected by an air of being better than, more intellectual, more worthy, chic all wrapped up in colossal ego.  But oh, the light, magical.

Paris is for lovers. Paris in the spring. Wicked Paris. The light of Paris.  Paris is a cliché.  Like, La Vien Rose, Eiffel Tower, Hemingway, Gauguin, Les Miserable, Hunchback, Notre Dame, Napoleon, Folies Bergiere, can-can, Montmartre on and on with all the superlatives Nothing like the food. Nothing like the clothes, nothing like, the list goes on and on. As I write this Notre Dame has gone up in flames.  The spire is gone but the bell towers and the bees are safe.

There are those who think the bees being safe of more importance than relics. Especially relics that some find difficult to credit as being quite as promoted. Bees supply honey and pollinate a vast variety of foods and flowers.  Some of the relics also pollinate in their way. I’ll go with the bees. Life over artifacts.

This is not the first time Notre Dame has burned and been resurrected.  As with so many antiquities they have died and been reborn.  Often much has been lost as with the     6thC., B.C Sibylline Books, totally gone and all the knowledge held within them. Alexander in his fury, fired Persepolis. Some again and again. London, notably in 1212 and again in1666. The entire landscape gone. Entire cities have been obliterated and then rebuilt. Boston in 1872, Chicago 1871 and San Francisco in 1906. The only antiquity not on fire was Egypt – all that stone. Some remade in new styles with new meanings, others faithfully adhering to the past. But of course they are not the past. New stones, new ideas

Paris let’s not forget the ubiquitous phrase, y’know the one: “We’ll always have Paris” Bogey said it, Jon-Luc Picard said it and maybe a thousand others.  Sounds good. Then there’s the accordion, the sound evokes open doorways into smoky rooms crowded and laughing and boisterous drinking. Coming out of a store yesterday it all came back as there was a busker with an accordion playing one of those blue, unmistakable French songs. Piaf lives on in her indefinable way. Unique and quintessentially Parisian. Evokes all the angst that lives in the sunniest of personalities. certain cultures seem to have more than others, like Portugal with their fados and French with a tortured view of life and love. Look at the apache dance- love and pain. Spain’s are intense demanding the sensuous, quick violent action of the flamenco. Think of opera with all its tortuous life, love and death, usually violent.

Back to Paris, it’s all so true. And not so much.  It’s what you bring to Paris in the way of what you want or expect or are looking to find. Surrounding me is the interesting architecture and glimpses, through a gate or down a narrow alley of an earlier time.  Paris in the spring. The light is ephemeral. A clear gray.  Not the crystalline light that lifts Mont St Michael into another dimension. A rich light that faintly glows and makes nonsense of the squalid that seems to always lurk just beyond sight.

Despite trying to eat just one more croissant this morning stuffed with apricot jam I cannot resist stopping at a tiny shop and purchasing two tubs of pate and a small jar of cornichons then onto a boulangerie for a fragrant roll or two.  It is the smell of the bakeries that I carry away with me when I leave.

Its spring and I’m walking down cobbled streets winding around with a bower of green overhead and flowers blooming at my feet.  And all in an extraordinary cemetery, Pere Lachaise. A gateway to many worlds. To the past of many. If you listen carefully you may hear the whispers of the tombs. 

These streets are not the grand Paris boulevards of fame. Fame of a different sort.  I am strolling through the streets of another kind of city. Père-Lachaise, calm, contemplative but lively for those with imagination. the most famous of the Parisian cemeteries.

The streets wind their way through the trees all forming a cool segment amid the busy and cacophonous streets of Paris. It is a delightful park and a wonderful place to stroll.  Whether your interest lies in gardens, architecture or famous names in the arts, science, military or a connection with a family name you can find it here.

Everywhere flowers and trees make it delightful to look at and in the summer heat, cool and inviting with enchanting architecture. From the oldest plain concrete tombs to obelisks, elaborate neo-renaissance, gothic complete with stained glass windows and some a sumptuous collection of three or four styles. Like Paris it’s all in what you want to find, Celebrity hunting? [Join the throng of sometimes odd people at Jim Morrison’s grave]? Serenity? Architecture? Relatives? Observation of the quixotic imagination of the inhabitants or their heirs? Honor an artist such as Moliere or Berrnhardt. Or curious or all of the above or none – a place to pass a few minutes or eat lunch in peace. 

As I enter a path into the cemetery gradually the traffic noise fades, the hot sun changes into dappled shade while you stroll the paths.  Here a miniature gothic cathedral, there a Greek temple and just beyond the hedge looms an Egyptian obelisk.  And yes a pyramid.  The inventiveness of the memorials is amazing.  But why so elaborate and showy. The many styles of architecture give a clue.  Not merely a home for the dead but an advertisement for when they were alive. How they wish to be remembered whether it has any reality or not.  The dead can’t dream or at least one supposes not. In most myth the dead do not feel or see or think.  Or did these dead even choose how to be remembered? More for the living than the dead one thinks.

That pyramid looming up ahead.  I can nearly hear the thoughts, “I will be as the mighty Ozymandias lost in the mists of time but not overlooked or forgotten.  The pyramid will shelter my bones for all time.” Or, “At least here I will be pharaoh and then she can see how she likes when she must obey me.”  The latter no doubt to his shrewish wife or perhaps a wayward daughter.”

Why do we memorialize our dead? Show how much we care? Status? “Look how loving and caring we are.  “Oh yes, we hated her in life but are honoring her death. They no longer care [some would say that’s up for debate], and why do we?  Memories should be enough.  Like dreams they are potent but hard to manage.  They persist in popping up at odd times and are unruly.  Here in these acres many dreams and memories exist. For many this is the only land they will ever own. Forever. And why not have an obelisk or a Greek temple or a Roman sarcophagus? “I earned it and look how its admired. Well no I don’t know everyone that looks at this magnificent memorial to me.”

The cobbled streets wind through various styles of sepulchers, plain concrete to elaborate marble.  Miniature gothic churches stained glass windows.  Some of the world’s greatest literary figures have very modest tombs, others have no name, some unknowns are elaborate. A way to making the living important or a belief that it will please the dead. “Forgive me for not pleasing you in life but now you have all eternity to be pleased by this elaborate show.  Affection? Maybe but really to, just this once to please you.” To make up for a life not lived, or lived well or, “I’m sorry.”

Porcelain wreaths, spray, circlets of flowers are popular. Imagine having porcelain wreaths adorning our cemeteries? How long might they last? Does this mean Americans are less honest, more destructive? Perhaps not but the thought of porcelain flowers seems incongruous for our final resting places. Or what one assumes is a finality.  I can imagine that there is a toll of these charming wreaths taken here as well.  But what a lovely idea.  Permanent flowers in a medium that will last as long as the grave, tomb or slab. A kinder thought than: “Let them get out from that.”      

An unusual sight stops and holds me enthralled as I watch a man engraving, if that’s the correct term, a tombstone. The chisel makes slight rasping and tapping sounds as a letter is carefully fashioned.  How pleasing to see this done by the hand of a craftsman – not a machine. Surely the inhabitant is also content to see the care their name is being carved on stone. Content for your name confers power. Power over others, one’s own baser nature and here over death. “Take that. Thought you got rid of me? Well here I am. My name immortal.” “Oh Alfred, how could you think I would forget your name?”

On a different path there is humor in the figure climbing out of the slab topping the rectangular tomb. A macabre thought but humorous in execution.  Bright turquoise in contrast to the mundane grey slab of stone. A memory of a long-ago holiday in Las Palmas.  Swimming in the bright, warm waters under a hotter, brighter sun and looking forward to a lazy lunch.

The same turquoise [standard color in burial memorials?] in a wild, up-reaching shape of horns embracing a youthful person precariously balanced?. “I will fly through the air, amazing all who see me.  My skill will take me to distant lands where exotic sights and sounds will be all around me but everyone’s eyes will be on me as I twist and turn between a mythical beast’s horns.”

A shady lane and an astonished looking sphinx?   Mesopotamian  in an art-deco way. No, a damaged angel that suits the inhabitant. Oscar Wilde. Naughty boys broke off the penis That’s a first – and angel with appendages. Usually just wings. Scandal about his burial but the King was an admirer of his plays overcoming the clerical objections.  After all he had been – quell horror, an actor and we all know what they get up to.

Do I hear music? Chopin is here or most of him- probably not his music as his heart just isn’t in it.  His heart is back in Warsaw.  But I could swear I hear -well of course.  It is Paris and who better than Edith Piaf.  Yes that indefinable essence of Paris, smoky bars, dim lights and the inimitable Piaf sound.

Just beyond another figure emerging from the stony ground of his resting place. He is having none of that. Flinging himself upward and raising his right arm skywards while the left keeps pushing to free the rest of his body. “Where am I and how did I get here? What am I – good lord it’s a cemetery. I’ve gotten out of worst places.  Never thought good old George would be so clever. I’ll fix him when I get out of here. Wherever here is Glad it’s warm. I seem to have misplaced my – wait am I dead? Don’t feel dead but really cold.”

A more contemplative symbol is that of bronze hands entwined above a small slab tomb.  Eternal love, prayer, or a lovely shape? Another tale untold. Or is it? I hear whispering now: “Please keep remembering me. I didn’t mean to leave you for so long but life with your father was impossible and I knew grandmere would love and take care of you.  I can’t say I’m sorry about your father. He was a troubled man who would not change, He would say to me that he knew he had a temper but he didn’t intend to do anything about that and it was up to me to cope. I could not.  I wanted to take you with me but how could I? I could take only my small savings that I hid from everyone, a few clothes and enough food for a day. Oh my dear one – you hear me – you know and love me.  All my eternity I will think of you…”  

I walk on to an area with no sheltering trees seeing there is a tomb with little ambiguity.  A six foot plus upright tomb topped with a striding, apparently singing figure is identified as Dr.Nicolai Roussev who is a more recent addition to the cemetery with his years, 1914-1995. Above an olive wreath is a musical notation.  What appears to be a trumpet in his right hand while his left hand holds a pack slung over his shoulder. The name appears to be Russian in origin and brings the question: did his family flee Russia during a pogrom.  Were they of a class despised by the peasants? Aristocrats forced to flee to Paris where so many did? Certainly a story there.

Back to a shady lane and there is a somewhat astonished looking sphinx? Angel? Rather Mesopotamian in appearance.  No clues here but its neighboring tome has the words Famille Papeil while on top is the now familiar turquoise objects, one of which seems to be a stack of papers while the other might be a flower. Aah, I think I have it, finally.  The turquoise objects could all be copper.  That large figure of horns [?] could be copper laid over what? Concrete? Another mystery. Other individuals will be entombed “en famille” some with both sides of the family – others with what appears to be a very extended family. Some have fallen into disrepair but for the most part is kept at least neatly

Alongside the famous or infamous there are insights into times past.  Here a marvelous tribute to the sous-chef of Louis XIII. Those with any connection to the military their personal and military history carefully recorded.  No Napoleon’s here.  Here are the good and faithful servants, according to their lights, of family home and country.  There are worse things to be remembered for. None the less I hear some grumbles: “I would rather be remembered for my prowess at boules. Sometimes I think I can still hear the tock as my ball hits another, feel the warm sun on my back and the camaraderie of my fellow players, the taste of good red wine and the tang of bread.” “Huh, no mention of the tedium of duty, duty, duty, day in year out when all I required was time to tend to my garden.” “I suppose it is good they do not mention Lisette – aah what a beauty unlike the shrew I was tied to in marriage. Well, we’re all out of it now.”

.Down another street there is an elegant grey veined polished marble tomb sheltered by fanciful Greco-Roman pillars. While next door is a rosy hued rock seeming just torn from its mountain and topped with a pensive white figure of a woman.  A mystery there – was she from the mountains? Maybe a geologist? There might be fascinating scenarios to assign to this enigmatic tomb. On the other side more Ionic columns.

The neo-classic columns – ancient Egypt, the early east – alongside the whimsical, the nearly grotesque, the accolades to the military, nods to science all conveying the importance, at least here, of the inhabitants. Perhaps they are clue to the inner lives of those lying here or playing out their dreams.

There are those embellished with memorial plaques showing photographs.  Helpful if one’s Ba or Ka [two parts of what made up a person in ancient Egypt] Ba being your personality- what makes you, you and the Ka the life force. The Ba few out in the morning to keep watch over your living family and the Ka went off to have fun. Both returned at night to rest up for the next day] If your name was not written down somewhere, the Ba and the Ka would get lost. So a name would be inscribed surround by a cartouche – helped them to find their way home. So these plaques with your picture could help your ghost, if one believes there are such things, find the proper tomb if they are forgetful. A most appropriate venue for Jean-Francoise Champollion the translator of the Rosetta stone.

Is this 110-acre park-like cemetery hushed and solemn? There is more than the interesting, sometimes quixotic architecture of the tombs. It is an inhabited place Not of ghosts but of the living No and no. there are people picnicking, sitting on benches reading or just enjoying a quiet time away from the hustle of modern life. You will hear laughter, murmured conversations, couples strolling hand in hand, old, young, middle-aged, babies. may. There are people planting flowers, cleaning up fallen leaves, putting a riot of flowers in a vase, getting water from convenient taps to keep greenery and flowers fresh.  People of all ages walking through or tending the last homes of their loved ones.

One area that brings home what it is all about – the passing of life. Rounding a curve in the street I come upon the memorials to WWII –memorials to the resistance and to the death camps.  I try to mentally pay homage but cannot stay long.  Their stories are for them. I have nothing to add but a constricted throat.

There is the Columbarium. Listen closely you may be led to Maria Callas, her voice stilled. Can that small container encompass voice so large. Perhaps an echo as she was taken to an island in Greece and only a hollow urn left. A few steps away contains the ashes of Isadora Duncan now stilled. Wait – is there a glimpse of swirling draperies, a glimmer in the gloom. In the chilly Columbarium its hunt the celebrity…   St. Cyr, Isadora Duncan, Collette, Proust to name a few. Surprising is the modesty of the facades – name, date and a line or two. This brevity of those who while alive engendered millions of words, endless sound of clapping and cheering and now silence so few words.. Uncomfortable when thinking of one’s own - how many words will I engender. Maybe just a period in place of a sentence. Other names known only to their families are abundantly inscribed and masses of flowers. Such is fame..”

The real pleasure is to wander and discover. This will take longer but you can find a bench and have that lunch you thoughtfully picked at the nearest boulangerie.  Let the park talk to you. “What is that?  Looks like an American. “Oh no I don’t think so look at her clothes.  So chic.  Well, maybe she bought something here.”

What a lovely day.  I remember.” Shh. I’m trying to sleep.” “Hah. You are not asleep you ninny. You’re dead.” “I feel the warm sun. Odd I usually am so very cold.”

Strolling once where the tombs are close together on differing levels.  They lean toward another sharing lives and stories.  “So, when did you come here? Oh, how interesting. And then she did what? No, really.  How unusual

In Pere LaChaise everybody will have a favorite and mine is the grave with a very modest marble slab. This lady died nearly a century ago but is bejeweled with fresh sprays and bouquets of flowers. A much-loved lady

Refreshed and invigorated by the calm, the beauty the stories even if they are all in my head I leave to cross the street and buy my own wreath of porcelain. Back to the busier, louder no longer a cliché – Paris.

But wait.  There is more. Not yet ready to leave Paris or the theme. A celebrity collector? Go to Cemeterie du Montparnasse.  The architecture is not as varied or exciting as that of Pere Lachaise but very worthwhile.  It abounds in celebrities that includes the literary, Jean Paul Sartre, Guy de Maupassant, automobile famous, Andre Citroen, disgraced and redeemed Alfred Dreyfus, musician and composer, Camille Saint-Saens and many more.  Easier to find if you consult the maps available that shows you where to look for the illustrious, famous or infamous.

Have a final café complete, couple more croissants and  it’s time to cross the Channel.

Lot of choices, by air, car, ferry or hovercraft.  The latter two are my favorites, the hovercraft gives a splendid view of the white cliffs of Dover or Ramsgate where the legendary fleet of private crafts set out to save those stranded on the beach at Dunkirk.

Another story but in London we’re going to stick to our theme and go to Highgate Cemetery set in that famous, sometimes infamous part of London.  Fully as wonderful as is Parisian counterpart but so different.

Highgate, the haunt of the mysterious, romantic and chilling histories. Highgate Cemetery sits atop the famous, often infamous Hampstead Heath affording stupendous views of London.  Founded in 1839 it quickly became the fashionable place for a last address.

Wilder than its French counterpart it contains fantastical architecture and if the Egyptian style entrance doesn’t give you thoughts of ghostly elegance you’re not trying.   Here too are the famous, the notorious, fashionable and unknowns. There is Michael Faraday the electrical engineer who invented the Bunsen burner familiar to all high school students doing their lab credits, while nearby is William Friese-Green [born William Edward Green] a pioneer in motion pictures and some say of cinematography.

There is a feeling of being deep in a wild. fantastical place and you come upon grave sites and tombs on a dreamlike way. The Victorian fascination with the discoveries of ancient Egyptian treasure pervades Highgate.   Nowhere is this more evident than in the evocative “Egyptian Avenue”. Following a bewitching shaded woodland path nothing prepares you for the avenues’ entrance with its obelisk and lotus flower column. Straight out of Indiana Jones without the temple of doom. Only a line of splendid family vaults. And yet there seem to be whispers in the breeze. We’re here but not certain where here is - or why I am in the middle of what appears to be a stage set Wait -are we doing Aida? I remember going to see that not long before – well you know – I, horrid thought, died.  The whispers seem friendly if confused so on I go down the avenue leading to The Circle of Lebanon, a magnificent area of family vaults influenced by Egyptian, Gothic [a Victorian favorite] and Classical styles.  No whispers here.

Family seems to rule in the Circle.  There are more family vaults here and a Columbarium, the ‘place for urns’, and the Terrace of Catacombs. The circle enshrouds a glorious three century old tree, a Cedar of Lebanon towering over the cemetery. And look at the names on these marvelous vaults. Perhaps no known to you but interesting. Can you imagine the family conversations? Squabbles? Tender last words. Oh maman, oh papa, I will see you soon. Go away from the plague. Jacque stop that – I will tell – then you’ll get it. Why must I go away to the county, nothing ever happens there. You hate Jean-Pierre that is why.  No I shall not…

On the way across to the Avenue Principale there is that delicious actress Jean Seberg.

Alas I am now forgotten – non? How kind of you to stop by.  I…

Then over a few streets to a favorite playwright, Samuel Beckett. Notable for me as we share a birthdate only 26 years apart.  I attempt to write plays and of one it was said that if was in the style of Beckett. Not intended but that’s how it came out.  Another one about waiting.

Not far away is Baudelaire, de Maupassant. I hear whispers on the breeze – snatches of lines…

Waiting oh yes waiting I cold not have known how true how prescient waiting …

that dreadful monstrosity– an affront to Paris

one must be philosophic

My imagination runs riot – are they all talking to one another? Well why not. They have nothing else to do – now. But un their lifetimes – what contributions.

A different sort altogether is Citroen a favorite car of mine.  I wish I could have one of those old hydraulic cars. So elegant. So French, chic and unique. My mind flashes on that spectacular lineup of Citroen’s in Senegal.  Nine in a row outside some sort of government building.  What stories there might be there.

No abundant shade here as in La Chaise.  The sun is getting very hot and my feet sore. Maybe best to head back to where I came in and then retreat to a shady café. But I haven’t found de Bouverie or Sartre. Where did I put that map. Oh no. It all the way back. Well I’m here so I’ll get on with it. I’ll cut through on -oh and Dreyfus. I must pay my respects. Besides my lawyer friends will ask. So onward to Rue Schoel Cher. A frisson of unhappiness sweeps through me.  Understandably. The Affaire as it is known in France is still a benchmark of injustice.  Still happening.

Now I hurry a little to Rue Emile Richard passing the Metro entrance but I will find the other literary lights. Oh, I see if I go just a bit further to Ionesco’s tomb.  I always thought the play I did was more in the school of the absurd – one of Ionesco’s contribution to drama.

Banal, banal…how much more so and absurd. Nothing has changed – banality abounds. Life itself is absurd.

Whose whispers again.  I think the sun is getting to me.

Still I will be going in the right direction. A few more steps and here, nest to the entrance is Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Together – in life, in death. Feminism, philosophy, literature, drama all bundled together for an eternity.  What must their home life have been like? A meeting of the minds, passion, equality – though this last is only speculation.

Now I am getting desperate for drink and food and a place to rest my poor feet. Take a chance on something nearby or back to the Metro? In the spirit [sorry] of the day I will take a chance. A bon chanceAu revoir.

Retired educator. Avid traveler. Compulsive reader and writer. Interested in nearly everything.


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