FOR THE LIVING

by Shawn on July 7, 2014 · 13 comments

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Fun fact #13: I love cemeteries. I grew up near a gorgeous sprawling one and it became one of the backdrops of my childhood. My brother and I spent much of our summers riding our bikes along the narrow gravel roads, checking out the more elaborate tombstones, daring each other to peer into the family crypts, and sometimes, walk through the most taboo section of the cemetery – the children’s plots.

There was no intention of disrespect spending so much time there – it was a quiet, safe place we enjoyed exploring. As I grew older, my curious fascination with cemeteries didn’t dissipate. One of my favorite things to do is going to a cemetery and read the tombstones, imagining the peoples’ lives, not just how they died but how they lived. The trees on the grounds tend to be older than most of the cemeteries, whispering their own stories through slants of sunlight and shadow. Some of my friends were bemused by my “hobby” and occasionally went with me to see what the fuss was all about. Most of them thought it was too morbid and/or boring.

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When I began taking road trips, I made it a necessity of visiting cemeteries, or in some cases, small, neglected graveyards, when I passed through a town. One of my must-see attractions when I went to New Orleans was to visit the St. Louis Cemetery. I was awestruck, driving slowly along the winding roadway through the beautiful above-ground crypts. The tombs’ craft work were ornate, retelling histories spanning hundreds of years.

In my early 20s, I set out on another road trip with a friend, and we decided to take a detour and visit Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts. We visited Kerouac on an early, Spring morning and I left a ceramic trinket of a cat (he loved cats) with a poem that I had written. It was a perfect start to the road trip.

It was a no-brainer to visit the Montparnasse and Pere-Lachaise cemeteries while we were in Paris. I had seen pictures of these places and they looked similar to the beautiful symmetry of the ones I visited in New Orleans, but much larger and regarded like city parks than places of death. And they contained some of the heavyweights of literature, philosophy, theater, music and art. I was giddy, to say the least.

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At one of the entrances at Pere-Lachaise

Carmel and I compiled a mighty list of tombs and graves that we wanted to visit, and unfortunately, we didn’t check them all off. At the main entrances the cemeteries have a large map displaying popular grave sites, but some of them weren’t listed, and we neglected to download a map before going. Consequently, we couldn’t find Gertrude Stein’s, Richard Wright’s or Edith Piaf’s graves, but with some help from friendly Parisians either giving us directions or sometimes leading us through the labyrinth to the sites, we visited great ones. Balzac. Baudelaire. Chopin. Bizet. Beckett. Proust. Guy de Maupassant. Oscar Wilde. Jim Morrison.

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The much adored tomb of Oscar Wilde

Some of these notable peoples’ graves were predictably ornate: Balzac’s mighty bust adorning the top of his crisp tomb. Oscar Wilde’s site was encased by plastic because the tomb was damaged from people kissing and writing love poems on it. Now, puckered lipstick mouths and messages scatter across the sheeting. Jim Morrison’s grave is cordoned off by barriers due to the excessive loitering traffic from misguided, intoxicated youth. The iconic bust that once topped his grave has long been removed due to graffiti and threat of theft.

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The Lizard King’s final resting place

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Across from Chopin’s grave was a cat that acted as groundskeeper

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There were surprises though. It was very difficult finding Samuel Beckett’s grave (one of the ones that we needed guidance finding) as he had a simple black stone with only his weatherworn name across. Some of the “ordinary” family tombs were incredibly beautiful and creative, kept up and cared for over decades of time and seasons. At both cemeteries, there were monuments for soldiers of past wars, and at Pere-Lachaise, monuments honoring the victims at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

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Some of the more creative and less familiar tombs

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A tombstone at Montparnasse designed by artist Niki de Saint Phalle for a friend

The days we visited were sunny, the air crisp. Strolling over the rolling hills along the small roads, I felt a sense of calm and peace. These weren’t taboo places of superstition – old ladies sat on the benches, gossiping. School kids hurried about, tracking down sites for assignments. Couples strolled under the canopy of branches, stopping occasionally to read a tombstone or admire the stonework. They are gardens of remembrance and histories, designed and intended for the living as much as they’re final resting places for those that have passed.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott July 7, 2014 at 8:13 am

Amazing article bro, and even better pictures!

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Shawn July 7, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Thanks, man! Thanks for reading!

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Karen July 7, 2014 at 8:34 am

A beautiful, poignant and respectful description of your visits. Europe has very thoughtful, yet colorful, tombs. Your pictures and words take the reader on your journey with your thoughts and feelings.
One important fact left out, however. The cemetery of your childhood supplied flowers for your Mother’s Day present to me.

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Shawn July 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Well, thank you, mom…of course, the Mother’s Day Incident, which I’ve now dubbed it, was well intended for the children that we were…they were beautiful, though, you have to admit! Love Ya

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karen July 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Yes, Shawn most beautiful and appreciated. It’s the thought that counts, as the saying goes.
Much more meaningful than a gift bought by dad for you to give. Fun memories, for sure.

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Calli July 7, 2014 at 10:36 am

Great article! I really love visiting cemeteries too and Pere Lachaise was a must when we visited Paris last year. Growing up my parents had a poster of Jim Morrison’s tombstone – complete with the bronze bust and covered in graffiti – that become one of the most vivid memories of my childhood and I couldn’t wait to visit in person once I was able to start traveling.

Not everyone seems to understand why I’d rather spend a day exploring a quiet, overgrown, forgotten cemetery but they are so peaceful and beautiful. It’s great to see that someone else feels the same way.
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Shawn July 7, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I had a similar poster on my wall as well and vowed to myself to visit his grave when I could, so it was pretty cool on a personal level to visit Morrison’s grave. I could have written a lot more about the appeal and allure cemeteries have, but it would have gotten too self-indulgent for the post, I reckon. But, there’s that energy…the vibrations in those places, no matter how kept or old they are, that if you’re paying attention and willing to open yourself up to it, then it’s a truly amazing and peaceful experience.

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Ana July 7, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Shawn – You are such a gifted writer. The story of your childhood curiosity is very interesting to me because in Mexico I loved reading the tombstones also. That is how I found where my Grandfather was buried in Puebla. Nice to know people in Paris take care of the cemeteries. Wonderful photos too.
Ana

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Shawn July 14, 2014 at 7:58 am

Thank you, Ana! It seems like there are a lot of us who find cemeteries beautiful and sources of imagination and solace.

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Rhonda July 9, 2014 at 7:59 am

Wow… the cat tombstone for Ricardo is amazing. I, too, have always loved them. Even now, there is a small country cemetery about 2 miles from our house and we walk our dogs there often and wander among the gravestones. We try to imagine what the people were liked who are buried there, marvel at the age of some at their death, and feel sad at the youth of others. Great photos.
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Shawn July 14, 2014 at 7:58 am

I do the same thing…sometimes I even use names I see on tombstones in future stories. There are stories abundant in cemeteries…I’m glad that you find the interest in them as well.

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Peter Korchnak @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? July 18, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Thanks for sharing the story and photos. In Paris we only managed to visit the Montmartre cemetery, so I appreciate this all the more. Plus I enjoy exploring cemeteries as well. I find it fascinating how a community’s treatment of its dead reflects its treatment of the living. A cemetery is one of the best windows into a culture.
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Shawn July 20, 2014 at 11:02 am

Well stated, Peter…I agree that one can gauge how a community views itself from their cemeteries…I’ve seen meticulously groomed yet lonely cemeteries without visitors, and some that are half buried in weeds and stone rubble. To me, both examples are unfortunate.

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