Père Lachaise cemetery: A place of respect or a Disneyland for the dead?
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
As most of you know I’ve had the fortune of working in Paris this summer as an Office Manager at a start up company. I’ve been adjusting to the fast paced 9-5 work-hard-play hard millennial lifestyle, however what everyone neglected to tell me was that Parisian summers are extremely quiet. Cafés, bars and restaurants all close for weeks on end as everyone takes their annual holidays; which can be up to four weeks at a time! This usually animated city transforms itself into a ghost town in certain arrondissements, with empty streets and shops that appear abandoned. Nonetheless Paris retains its seductive and romantic charm even in the quietest of periods.
I’ve experienced two public holidays since I’ve been here: Bastille Day (14thJuly) and August 15th. Bastille day is a flurry of excitement and animation; most museums are open and are free for the public and it is a day of national pride, celebrating the beginnings of the Republic state ending with a large fireworks display. This year was even more chaotic as it coincided with the World cup weekend! However August 15th is more of a subdued affair. In the U.K we don’t tend to celebrate this holiday as it has a Catholic origin, a recognition of the Assumption of Mary. Despite France retaining firm stance on secularity, many companies observe this holiday (perhaps as an excuse to have a day off). My office was no exception. This year it fell on a Wednesday - which by the way, a mid week bank holiday totally throw you off kilter- and I desperately searched for something to do on my unexpected day off.
As I mentioned earlier most shops are closed on this day- it is like a Sabbath. But I was highly aware of how little time I had left in Paris and wanted to explore something new. After trawling through numerous tourist pages, something which repeatedly came up on my explore page was the Père Lachaise cemetery. Now I know what you’re thinking- why on earth would you want to visit a cemetery on your day off? I’m not usually drawn to the macabre and maudlin- in fact for a long time I avoided cemeteries and funerals due to a crippling anxiety surrounding the concept of death. This is something which I’ve endured since my early teen years, yet I’m slowly coming to terms with it because, well, you have to as its inevitable and perhaps the only certain thing in life- but I’m rambling now. I figured ‘Hey why not, everything else is closed’ and this trip surprised me in a multitude of ways, and created another uncertainty in my mind and a new bout of questions.
This post is somewhat different to my others, I don’t want it to be a ‘what I did on my trip to the cemetery’ type post- if those do exist. This day out to Père Lachaise forced me to start thinking about moral questions surrounding privacy, death, grief and respect. Walking into the cemetery I had a single mind-set, “Let's see what all of the fuss is about”, however when I left I felt perplexed, overwhelmed but mainly enlightened.
So most of you may be wondering why is this cemetery so famous? It’s heralded as one of the most famous cemeteries in the world due to the copious amount of celebrities who are buried there such as Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison from the Doors and Oscar Wilde to name a few. However, Père Lachaise is not exclusive to the rich and famous, many ‘ordinary’ Parisians and expats are also laid to rest there. In fact there are quite a few strict rules and regulations regarding being buried in any Parisian cemetery. For example, you can only be buried in a Parisian cemetery if you lived in Paris for a period of time or you died in the capital. Père Lachaise itself is oversubscribed, due to the lack of plots, and it is estimated that there are around 1 million people buried there at present. There is in fact a waiting list to be buried there. This is a common problem in France, I was speaking to a friend who is in her twenties from Bordeaux who mentioned nonchalantly that her burial arrangements have been organised since she was a child. It is quite common for families to buy a large plot or a crypt and to be laid to rest together. I asked her if she thought this was strange and she said “Not really as its nice to have some peace of mind. Otherwise I wouldn’t be buried with my family”. As much as I am all for planning and organisation, the thought of finalising where I’ll be buried induced a high level of discomfort within me.
My trip to the cemetery stirred up a mélange of unexpected emotions within me. I didn’t really have any expectations at the start, I mean how exciting can a cemetery be? But it was bright and warm day as we were still revelling in the Parisian heat wave. The concept of heading to visit a cemetery alone in the U.K would be seen as quite strange occurrence however I soon realised that this was more common than I imagined and I saw young couples, parents with children and large groups of American tourists descend upon the cemetery. How weird could this actually be? There were plenty of tourists and I wasn’t seen as some perverse loner who loved hanging around tombs and crypts. There was this shared and accepted view that visiting this cemetery for entertainment purposes was normal.
The first thing I want to concentrate on is the blurred line between public and private property. My conflicted feelings stem from the fact that I’m not sure whether I am in agreement in capitalising on the dead. A lot of ethical issued arose throughout the day, firstly provoked by the welcome sign that I saw at the entrance gates. Cemetery workers were handing out maps of the cemetery - which I didn’t have an issue with as it is huge and you can very easily become lost – there’s around forty-two hectares of ground. However what did disturb me was the large sign listing all of the famous people that were buried here and how to find their tombs. It struck me instantly that I’d unintentionally signed up to a celebrity sight seeing tour- but for dead people. It was like being on an open bus tour in L.A which people sign up to see celebrity homes in Beverly Hills, however we were in a graveyard in Eastern Paris. Was I enabling the exploitation of these dead people just by visiting the cemetery? In a way I believed that I was, even though the cemetery is free and access is open to all, it is still publicised as a tourist attraction. Sites such as trip advisor and the culture trip were promoting this ‘must see’ monument promoting it with the same vigour as the Louvre and Notre Dame. The cemetery was established in 1804, evidently during that time people who were buried there had no idea that the cemetery would become the epicentre of dead celebrity hunting and would become a staple on the Paris tourist circuit.
Another thing which I also felt personally conflicted about was taking photographs, and the relationship between social media and respect. Even now I’m still uncertain as to where I stand on this issue. Those of you who follow me on social media- particularly Instagram and Snapchat will know that I have been even more active during my stay in Paris, frequently posting and updating my stories. For me at the start of the day I had no qualms about posting photos of the graves and architecture of the cemetery. For one it is architecturally appealing, due to the Haussmanian style of the graves and the gothic elements of the crypts. However it did make me think- is this disrespectful? I did a little bit of research and found that although graves are technically private property, photography is generally accepted at Père Lachaise. I had to ask myself why was I taking photos, was it to prove a point that I’d been at one of "the most visited cemeteries in the world" or was it because I actually appreciated the architecture and scenery of the cemetery? In all honesty it was a little bit of both and I still feel uneasy that I did take photographs. Speaking to multiple Parisians about this, people’s opinions on the matter differed. A female friend who has family members buried at Père Lachaise recalled being at a family members funeral there and how she felt totally disrespected when a group of tourists began pointing and taking photographs of the burial ceremony as though it were some kind of spectacle. In this instance I do believe the boundaries of respect were definitely crossed. People do need to remember that it is still a functioning cemetery, people of all ages, races, sexes and social classes are buried there and one should treat it like any other place of rest.
On the other hand I had people say that my photography was not disrespectful as I wasn’t going to use the photos to exploit the graves and that I didn’t mean any disrespect to the people buried there. I did think in the moment I did get overwhelmed and perhaps a little over excited. It is very easy to fall into the trap of ‘treasure hunting’ and forget that it is a real cemetery. In a way I had to put myself in that perspective- if I were buried there would I want people to take photos of my grave, famous or not? Again, I’m still conflicted by it all, I suppose it wouldn’t really matter because I would be dead and could do nothing about it so in a way there’s no harm in it. Nonetheless I did witness people standing on graves and monuments in order to get the ‘perfect selfie’ which I found totally degrading to the dead and utterly disrespectful. In a way its all circumstantial: if you’re taking photos for a project, like me and my blog or for a essay or article about the cemetery then perhaps it is more acceptable yet at the same time by taking selfies of yourself or balancing in gravestones for the gram is considered as an act of disrespect.
On the topic of respect I would also like to draw attention to idolatry and the relation between respectful admiration and infatuation and vandalism. I saw that the graves of Chopin, Proust and Delacroix which were all adorned with bouquets of flowers and notes of well wishes from enthusiastic fans. To me, I thought that this was simultaneously a thoughtful yet perhaps intrusive gesture. Is it possible to truly mourn the death of someone you never met? Well of course it is, we all in some way admire celebrities, artists, creatives in some way or another. Even though we may never meet them in real life we still feel connected to them via their work and now in the digital age we feel even closer to them due to the influence of social media. It's even possible, if not rare to be able to "slide into the DM’s" of your favourite artists on Instagram or Twitter nowadays. However mourning those who died centuries ago, who you will never have and never will meet them in person, still baffles me to this day. This modern day martyrdom is exacerbated by the accessibility of this cemetery. Nothing is stopping people from visiting their graves, leaving behind mementos. You could spend all day sat alongside your favourite, poet, singer composer or artist at Père Lachaise. To me this is all innocent and harmless and in a way it cultivates a culture of appreciating the dead and acknowledging their contributions, yet for others I do see how this could be seen as intrusive and inappropriate behaviour as it expounds the idea that you can force an intimacy between yourself and your deceased idols.
On the flip side one thing that I found distasteful was something that I had seen at Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde’s graves. Morrison’s grave is somewhat hidden away amongst a few others. You could easily walk past it and miss it- but there’s always a queue of tourists lined up waiting to pay their respects. There was even a security guard present who fervently watched us clamber around the graveside. There is a barrier that prevents people from approaching the grave. There have been numerous attempts of people who tried to write notes or leave gifts next to it so that it became an eyesore and heavily cluttered. I too felt like I contributed to the chaos as I stood in line waiting to steal a view of the grave. It was like being behind the barriers at a concert, people were fidgeting and pushing, all to see the gravestone of someone we don’t know personally.
The grave of Oscar Wilde was damaged even more. I was eager to see it as I have always been an admirer of his works having studied them throughout high - school and university as well as having a personal interest in his own story of persecution. Wilde is viewed as emblematic of gay rights, someone who was unapologetically, himself, an impassioned critic of a society which both enthralled and disgusted him. His works to this day are continually referenced and appreciated globally. For me it was a no brainer- I had to see the grave. It is just as ostentatious and over the top as he was said to be in life; his ornate grave is unmissable as it is sculpted into the shape of an angel with wings is lined with a glass barrier- a final attempt to stop people from writing on the tomb. Even the glass barrier is stained with rows of lipstick marks and sharpie notes declaring ‘Gay Pride’ and ‘RIP’. Witnessing the stark differences between the treatment of Proust’s, and Wilde’s gravesides made me think about the varying differences between what people regard as paying one’s respects. What one person may view as harmless admiration another views it as defacement of property. It appears that the idea of respecting property is not universally regarded. I had to think of the families of the dead, it is hard to empathise with fans of the deceased when they are defacing their graves. In a way I assumed that it was down to people writing in a fervour of emotion - sometimes when we ‘meet’ our idols we become overwhelmed and display behaviour which would not be tolerated in other circumstances- I chalked it down to being overwhelmed and star struck but I still couldn’t excuse the level of disrespect to the grave.
Conversely, I do believe that Père Lachaise Cemetery can also be used as a vehicle of education and is perhaps a place of comfort for many. Although so far in this post I seemed to have displayed a rather disparaging opinion regarding Père Lachaise cemetery I don’t believe that it is completely bad. Walking amongst the graves I did have a few solipsistic moments regarding death, the afterlife and memory. I haven’t always been terrified of death, as a young child I was quite comfortable with the idea of ghosts and the afterlife- however this changed when I was around the eight years old when two of my friends passed away in childhood and also due to the fact that in recent years death was acknowledged amongst my parents and I as a pending action in life due to that the fact that I have ageing grandparents. For as long as I can remember I have always avoided going to funerals, talking about death- even the thought of death as a child brought on an extended period of anxiety and insomnia. I even limit visiting my own grandfather's grave to once or twice a year maximum. The thought of visiting a cemetery as a pastime would never have occurred to me growing up. However being at Père Lachaise filled me with some kind of comfort, in a way it made me realise that cemeteries are more for loved ones and family members to be remember and ‘immortalise’ their loved ones. It is the idea of memory and being remembered which I found fascinating. The majority of tombs there are of regular people. It was reassuring in a way to see other people find curiosity in their graves, seeing the images of the people buried there. I’m not quite sure why but in a way I feel like I needed to visit the cemetery, to kind of put my mind at rest about the concept of death and afterlife, ever person in that graveyard has a legacy- just by being there. Being at Père Lachaise helped me come to terms with a few of my own anxieties about death, something that I have always suppressed and avoided.
Moreover during my trip to the cemetery my interest in certain figures was definitely piqued. I had made a list earlier on the day about the graves I really wanted to see one of them was Isadora Duncan. Her body isn’t buried there but her ashes are interred there. Duncan's name often comes up in pop culture, and as a dancer I had heard a lot about her and her contributions to contemporary and modern dance, yet I wanted to find out a little more about her. The circumstances of her death are tragic, a freak accident that cut short her flourishing career. This made me think, that out of the literal million people who are buried there each one of them has their own individual story most of which will remain untold. Leaving the cemetery I felt as sense of light-headedness. I was overwhelmed and inspired. I thought I might feel a little low and uncomfortable but not at all. In a way it gave me an appreciation of life, without sounding overdramatic. I thought I had already come to terms with the inevitability of death yet being here at Père Lachaise made me realise that I actually hadn’t and that it is a process. I won’t be making a habit of visiting cemeteries frequently but I also conquered a fear that I didn’t even know I had.
To conclude, my opinion of Père Lachaise cemetery is more complex than I thought it was. I’m still conflicted about it and I understand that it can’t be seen solely from a black and white perspective such as ‘are we capitalising on the dead yes or no?’ or is it fair to make it a tourist attraction? There are many shades of grey in between. I’ve asked myself if I think that the cemetery exploits the deaths of famous people and to a certain degree yes I do. Its exclusivity and celebrated inhabitants exorcises it. The 20 year + waiting list, the sale of unofficial maps, selfie taking tourists and the guided tours made me initially regard it as morbid Disneyland for the dead. Nevertheless, after having witnessed it myself I now know that it must be regarded as both a business and also as something more humane. Fundamentally it is a place of rest and the people buried there -regardless of their professions in life- still require a level of respect. I’m not going to champion it and tell everyone to go and visit it, however if it is something that interests you I can guarantee that you’ll come out of it with more questions than answers- something which isn’t always a bad thing.
Let me know what you think about unconventional tourist attractions like this? Do you think that we should encourage and promote them or should we leave the dead to rest in peace?