Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Who do you remember and how do you keep their spirits alive?

Some believe that the only truth is our bodies. And others see the truth in our souls.

One place where the possibilities of those truths connect is in a cemetery. Is it macabre, gothic, or just plain creepy to visit a cemetery in another culture, where you don’t have loved ones buried? Perhaps. Risking all those judgements, I present: Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

On the hilly eastern side of Paris rests this city of the dead. Its monuments to the dearly departed are works of art themselves: austere, elegiac, tragic, evoking the heights of patriotic bravery and the depths of grief.

Père-Lachaise is like a Who’s Who of the Parisian Dead. Take notes at the entrance of the posted cemetery map or rip out a ‘map to the stars’ found in substantive guidebooks on Paris. Or on this virtual map of the cemetery (unofficial), toggle off/on “famous graves.” Like the arrondisements and boulevards of the living Paris outside its walls, the gravesites are grouped into divisions and walkways have proper names.

Even the maps provided in guidebooks aren’t exactly exact, but I had fun getting a little lost in the netherworld, wondering if the myths of the famous are actually true and making up legends for the rest.

We had to pay our respects to James Douglas, better known as Jim Morrison of The Doors.

According to the Wikipedia, his gravemarker bears the Greek inscription: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ, literally meaning “according to his own daemon” and usually interpreted as “true to his own spirit.”

More famous folks: Middle Age scholars turned secret lovers turned abbots and letter-philes Heloise and Abelard… (nerding out begins). On their tomb reads, “À toi, mon cher et tant aimé mari, mes regrets eternels”  To you, my dear and beloved husband, my eternal sorrow.

… Auteur of the famous tableau, Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte, Georges Seurat… (which has been forever immortalized in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago)…

… Seurat is joined by his contemporary Camille Pissarro. Many more are here interred (Balzac, Chopin, Proust, Edith Piaf et al.) but I didn’t get to all of them, as the day wore short, the shadows grew long and the trolling security guards kicked us out. Too bad, I was a little afraid-slash-almost hoping we’d get locked in and be forced to spend the night.

Wealthy families pay big time francs/euros to own their own crypt: construction, artistic realization and upkeep. Each with their own identification number, owned graves bear this ‘in perpetuity’ inscription.

The rest of us, though, gotta pay rent.

After a few generations, if the living ancestors can’t be reached or if the family cannot continue to pay rent (price of burial in Euros per square meter vary greatly depending on the length of your rental), the remains will be transferred to a common grave, and the old monument cleared.

More than a few crypts fall into disrepair. For me, these have their own beauty, in their ruins is evidenced the passage of time, forgetting, and perhaps the loss of fortune.

These near feature-less caryatids hold up this Art Nouveau tomb, yet adorned with living plants.

A few times I came across these tributes shaped like books. They read, “The time passes, the memories remain. To our friend. To my brother.”

There also stands a remembrance for those victims of war. Mauthausen was a German concentration camp in Austria during World War II. 180,000 men and women were imprisoned, and 154,000 people died, were tortured, put to the gas chambers, shot and hung. (Forgive my rough translation.) “For their sacrifice, continue to stand in the way of oppression, and to open to humanity a voice of a better future in the friendship and in the peace between people. Remember.”

Tomorrow is Undas here in the Philippines, or All Saints’ Day. The Philippines in colonial times was governed by the Viceroyalty of New Spain (now Mexico) for their common master, Spain. Many cultural traditions were passed in the 250-year period where the Galleon Trade crossed from Manila to Acapulco, including Undas which is from the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos. During this important holiday, many Filipinos travel to their ancestral homes in the provinces to visit the grave sites of their relatives. Their remembrance is a whole family affair at the cemetery that can be an afternoon or a day’s worth (or even an overnight stay) of picnicing, offering prayers and flowers, lighting candles and telling stories about those since passed.

Who do you remember, and how do you keep their spirits alive?

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