Paris: Dead famous

By Liz Light

Sculptural headstones and trees make walking through Pere Lachaise Cemetery pleasant. Photo / Liz Light
Sculptural headstones and trees make walking through Pere Lachaise Cemetery pleasant. Photo / Liz Light

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon and, after a long lunch with friends, Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in central Paris, is a great place for a stroll. It's quiet and pretty and so vast it feels like it's not in the middle of a city, but the big attraction is the many famous folk buried there.

Jim Morrison of The Doors lies near the entrance, according to our cemetery map, so we start with him. In the cemetery's old areas, tombstones of all shapes and sizes are jigsawed together with barely foot space between, so finding Jim's resting place is difficult. But while we wander around looking for it, we come across the graves of Heloise and Abelard, united in death as they were not able to be in life.

Their 900-year-old love story is full of tragedy and drama. Abelard, a scholar and philosopher, was employed to teach Heloise, the niece of a rich, important Parisian. And Abelard taught her a thing or two; they become lovers, she became pregnant and they were secretly married.

Heloise's uncle was so incensed that he hired thugs to attack and castrate Abelard and sent Heloise to a distant convent.

Abelard became a monk, Heloise a nun and they wrote beautiful letters to each other which, when published after their death, made their tryst forever famous.

Before she passed away, Heloise requested that her body be put in the same coffin as Abelard's - he died 22 years before her - but this was not acceptable in 1164. Now their coffins lie close under an elegant marble sarcophagus in the dappled light of large chestnut trees. Butterflies wobble by and birds tweet in the foliage above.

It's unclear why Jim Morrison, a surly, sexy, bad-boy rocker, is in the old part of the cemetery, as he died in 1973, and it's only when we spot a bunch of aged rockers that we find his resting place. It's a small, modern gravestone, and the Greek inscription on it means "True to his own spirit". And so he was, the rider of the storm, going as far and as hard as he could. It was an accidental overdose of heroin at the end of a wild Parisian night that killed him when he was only 27.

We go in search of Oscar Wilde, also a bad-boy genius, whose downfall was his attraction to men. He resides in the modern part of the cemetery, which is organised in neat rows, and it's not difficult to find his headstone; it's a big, stylised, naked man-angel. I note that someone has broken off the statue's penis, the part of Oscar's anatomy that got him into all sorts of trouble, including two years in prison.

Oscar was a brilliant, witty writer, most famous for his plays. He was funny, confident, devil-may-care and very camp. He had little interest in women, so it's ironic, now, that it's women who adore him. The grave and headstone statue are covered in lipstick kisses.

"We love you Oscar" is neatly written in lipstick next to a sign saying, "Please do not deface this grave". A bouquet of dried red roses rests on a ledge and some kind soul has left Oscar an apple.

Gertrude Stein, also famously and openly gay, lies near Oscar. Gertrude wrote poetry, pithy lines, ("A rose is a rose is a rose"), collected Impressionist art and hosted a Saturday night salon for writers and artists in her Paris apartment. Her tombstone is simple; square granite with her name written in gold. Her partner, Alice Toklas, is buried behind in a tidy but smaller grave.

French novelist Collete, another who flaunted her lesbian affairs, is also buried here. Although she was also famous for helping Jews during World War II, including hiding her husband in the attic for the duration of the war.

We are sobered by our walk though the grim holocaust area, with haunting skeletal sculptures on top of memorials to thousands of Parisian Jews who died in places like Auschwitz. Nearby is an area of tombstones where hundreds of people murdered by Nazis are laid to rest. There is also an area of graves with Vietnamese names; those who fought and died for Indo-Chinese independence in the 1950s.

It's like a walk through the history of war; a lesson in the futility and tragedy of it and a sad reminder of the fragility of human life when politics goes horribly wrong.

On a slightly happier note, Edith Piaf, France's most adored songstress, finally found peace in 1963, aged 48. Her tomb is elegant and simple and is scattered with wilting real roses and colourful fabric roses. Parisians called her the little sparrow, so it's sweet that sparrows peck at the crumbed end of a baguette that a thoughtful soul has placed among the roses.

Hers is a rags-to-riches story interwoven with love and tragedy. Edith's true love was killed in a plane crash, she struggled with a broken heart, alcohol and drug addiction and finally died of liver cancer. But her glorious voice lives on - hundreds of Parisian cafes still play her songs every day.

It's a pretty day, with sun filtered green by enormous trees, and aside from the link with famous folk, we simply enjoy being here. There are finely sculpted heads on plinths, hosts of angels and many serenely beautiful statues of the Virgin. In some areas, old tombs, like sweet little houses, with iron doors and stained-glass windows, provide the final resting place for whole families. Chestnuts drop on to the cobbled paths, wild flowers bloom between tombstones and the black cemetery cats slink by.

A walk through Pere Lachaise is historically fascinating - Heloise and Abelard would likely be delighted that 900 years later people are still charmed by their love story - and it's a thoroughly pleasant way to pass a sunny afternoon in Paris.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies to Paris from Auckland every day.

Getting around: Look up the cemetery and its celebrity list and find the map online at en.wikipedia.org and pere-lachaise.com.

* Metro stations Gambetta and Phillippe-Auguste are nearby.

- Herald on Sunday

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