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.
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.
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.
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.
The Lizard King’s final resting place
Across from Chopin’s grave was a cat that acted as groundskeeper
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.
Some of the more creative and less familiar tombs
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.