In addition to making its visitors travel through time, a delicious walk (and respectful, it is all the same burials) in one of the largest green spaces of the city: the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Let's lose ourselves for a moment in the history-laden alleys of this open-air funeral art museum.
A place of big names and bloody history
In which Parisian district do we have the best chances of meeting celebrities? In St-Germain-des-près, the literary? In the eccentric Marais? In the depths of the 17th century bourgeois perhaps? Or in the cozy lounges near the Place de l'Etoile? Never mind: at the Père Lachaise cemetery, in the popular 20th arrondissement of the capital. The whole of Paris has been rubbing shoulders there and has been resting there for ages, attracting up to 2 million visitors per year. Of course, having fun finding the last home of Chopin (1810-1849), Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), Colette (1873-1954) or Jim Morrisson (1943-1971) is entertaining, moving for those who want to pay homage to them, but who also remembers the tragedies that took place here? In 1814 the students of the military schools of Polytechnique and Alfort took refuge in the cemetery facing the advancing Russian troops and were massacred on the spot, falling to the floor in the center of this 'garden of the dead'. It was especially in 1871 during the episode of the Commune that the eastern cemetery (its old name) sadly stood out. The last fights between Versaillais and Fédéré took place there at the end of the “Bloody Week”. The Federates taken prisoner are massacred by the Versailles troops. After the fighting, 148 federated prisoners were brought in who were shot against the wall that now bears their name. Since then, this place has become a place of memory for the parties which claim to be part of the heritage of the Municipality.
From sinister graveyard status to ultimate snobbery
Before becoming the largest cemetery in Paris, the land belonged to the Jesuits, including Father La Chaise (confessor of Louis XIV). Faced with the insalubrity of the intramural cemeteries, it was decided to build new necropolises. The cemetery of the East officially opened its gates in 1804. The first years, 80% of the burials consisted of mass graves: the price of concessions was high and the 'success' with Parisians was not really there. Then the people responsible: bringing in the graves of Molière (1622-1673), Lafontaine (1621-1695) then those of the mythical cursed lovers of the Middle Ages: Héloïse and Abélard (he, a sensual theologian, will be castrated for having loved beauty and the two will be separated until death before ... being reunited for eternity). In this romantic era, the publicity hit paid off. The townspeople came in large numbers to pay homage and soon dreamed of being buried, when the time came, with these geniuses of the pen and the heart. Ah, vanity ... In 1830: already 30,000 graves installed. The park is expanding, to now reach 44 hectares (and 69,000 graves). The cemetery will soon look, mid-19th century, like a real Who's Who? of the time. Many politicians will come to rest there, too. Félix Faure (1841-1899), Baron Hausmann (1809-1891) ... Their burials will often give rise to subtle demonstrations of force, in these times when demonstrations were strictly controlled.
True funeral masterpieces
In the 19th century, equality in the face of death became a very ... theoretical notion. The natural snobbery of some helping, the cemetery is adorned with tombs, stelae, bronze sculptures, marble, wrought iron absolutely magnificent (moreover, all funeral monuments dating from before 1900 are listed). Crazy sums are spent by some Narcissus to build eternal homes to match their ego. Thus, this hallucinating column of about twenty meters containing the four favorite objects of the deceased (with the name long forgotten). There, this disappeared represented in statue riding, conqueror, a proud wild lion. Or this other bronze one who raises a clenched fist towards the sky, seeming to curse the heavens for not having made him immortal. All the aristocracy of the time, that of the Restoration, of the July Monarchy as that of the Second Empire, rub shoulders and their particle names are still visible, on the pediments of their family pride half-covered by ivy. In addition, there are twelve listed historical monuments: portal and chapel of Godde, monument to the dead of Bartholomé, Héloïse and Abélard, Molière and La Fontaine, Delille, the Dragon, Wall of the Federates, Cartellier, O. Wilde, Georges Guët chapel.
An always amazing walk
Walking through these alleys, rich in 5300 trees (some of which are 150 years old), wild grasses, and always peaceful (the place does not encourage overflows, even the children remain calm), like a strange impression of touching the History of the finger. Human nature too, through the ridiculously pretentious side of certain burials. As long as the weather is gloomy, that some of the many cats patrolling around cross our path and, we accelerate the pace, suddenly superstitious, in front of the crematorium (the first in France then). Fallen back onto another path, turn your head and stumble upon the last scene by Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). A very simple grave for the one who only lived through extravagance. Thoughtful smile. A little further on, the recumbent figure of the murdered journalist Victor Noir (1848-1870). Its prominent crotch is glossy: a strange pagan tradition has it that some come to rub it in the hope of regaining fertility or virility. To laugh heartily. Pursue your path at random in this beautiful garden, with a welcome sweet melancholy as an intimate companion. Without knowing what still awaits us at the crossroads of these mysterious paths, in this place of death which, ultimately, breathes life. And History.
- Frédéric L'Helgoualch is the author of 'Deci-Delà (since nothing goes as planned)' to ed. from the Net.