|Spring, Paris, and Cemetaries
2022 by Kathryn Murdock
Photo by Fabrice Nerfin on Unsplash.
graves a fine and private place
none there I think do embrace
Marvell - To
His Coy Mistress
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
But oh, the light, magical.
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.
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.
is not the first time Notre Dame has burned and been
As with so many antiquities they have died and been reborn.
Often much has been lost as with
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
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
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
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
another dimension. A rich light that faintly glows and makes nonsense
of the squalid that seems to always lurk just beyond sight.
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
bakeries that I carry away with me when I leave.
spring and I’m walking down cobbled streets winding around with
a bower of green overhead and flowers blooming at my feet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I enter a path into the cemetery gradually the traffic noise fades,
the hot sun changes into dappled shade while you stroll the
Here a miniature gothic cathedral, there a Greek temple and just
beyond the hedge looms an Egyptian obelisk. And yes a
The inventiveness of the memorials is amazing. But why so
elaborate and showy. The many styles of architecture give a
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
these dead even choose how to be remembered? More for the living than
the dead one thinks.
pyramid looming up ahead. I can nearly hear the thoughts,
will be as the mighty Ozymandias lost in the mists of time but not
overlooked or forgotten. The pyramid will shelter my bones
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.”
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
They persist in popping up at odd times and are unruly. Here
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.”
cobbled streets wind through various styles of sepulchers, plain
concrete to elaborate marble. Miniature gothic churches
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
to please you.” To make
up for a life not
lived, or lived well or, “I’m sorry.”
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
can imagine that there is a toll of these charming wreaths taken here
as well. But what a lovely idea. Permanent flowers
medium that will last as long as the grave, tomb or slab. A kinder
thought than: “Let them get out from
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
rid of me? Well here I am. My name immortal.” “Oh Alfred,
how could you think I would forget your name?”
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
Swimming in the bright, warm waters under a hotter, brighter sun and
looking forward to a lazy lunch.
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
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.”
shady lane and an astonished looking sphinx?
Mesopotamian in an art-deco way. No, a damaged angel that
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
get up to.
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.
Paris and who better than Edith Piaf. Yes that indefinable
essence of Paris, smoky bars, dim lights and the inimitable Piaf
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.”
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.
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…”
walk on to an area with no sheltering trees seeing there is a tomb
with little ambiguity. A six foot plus upright tomb topped
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
to a shady lane and there is a somewhat astonished looking sphinx?
Angel? Rather Mesopotamian in appearance. No clues here but
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.
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
the famous or infamous there are insights into times past.
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
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.”
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
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.
are those embellished with memorial plaques showing
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
appropriate venue for Jean-Francoise Champollion the translator of
the Rosetta stone.
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.
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.
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..”
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.
is that? Looks like an American. “Oh no I don’t
think so look at her clothes. So chic. Well, maybe
bought something here.”
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
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”
LaChaise everybody will have a favorite and mine is
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
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 –
wait. There is more. Not yet ready to leave Paris or the
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
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.
a final café complete, couple more croissants and it’s
time to cross the Channel.
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.
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
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
quickly became the fashionable place for a last address.
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.
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
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
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
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.
seems to rule in the Circle. There are more family vaults
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
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…
the way across to the Avenue Principale there
that delicious actress Jean Seberg.
I am now forgotten – non? How kind of you to stop by. I…
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.
far away is Baudelaire, de Maupassant. I hear whispers on the breeze
– snatches of lines…
oh yes waiting I cold not have known how true how prescient waiting …
dreadful monstrosity– an affront to Paris
must be philosophic
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.
different sort altogether is Citroen a favorite car of mine.
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.
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.
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…how much more so and absurd. Nothing has changed –
banality abounds. Life itself is absurd.
whispers again. I think the sun is getting to me.
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.
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
chance. Au revoir.
educator. Avid traveler. Compulsive reader and writer. Interested in
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Another story by Kathryn