A death-affirming tour of the tombs on a life-enhancing day

Paris, mid-October: a morning of bountiful autumn sunshine that makes one happy to be alive. But we are among the dead, searching in a sector of the Père Lachaise cemetery for the grave of Poulenc. Though we aren’t going to find him here: the names, and the stars where elsewhere there are crosses, denote that this quiet corner, behind the imposing monument to Héloïse and Abélard, “amants légendaires”, is the seventh division, the Jewish quarter, and we need to push on up the Chemin Serré, where we will find our dazzling, often endearing, sometimes infuriating quarry in the grave which he shares with his niece.
Born January 1900, says the inscription (though Grove says 1899); died January 1963. A single flower has been attached to the door. Close by is George Dawes, from England, died 1851 at 26: “in the midst of life” says the legend “we are in death”.

A kind of floral-tribute league table operates in the Père Lachaise. Rossini has more flowers than Poulenc, even though he’s not French and his remains have gone to Italy. Chopin has even more than Rossini—but he was French as it were by adoption, and anyway a romantic. The writer Colette has mustered an impressive collection. I cannot for some reason find the tomb of Jim Morrison, chanteur, late of The Doors, but one sees here and there pilgrims whose dress suggests that he is their destination. Rossini is in an avenue straight ahead of the principal gate which the official guide says is devoted to “nombreuses personnalités et monuments remarquables”, a distinction he shares with Alfred de Musset, Visconti (the architect of the Louvre, not the film director) and others once just as celebrated but no longer so now.

Some juxtapositions across this last resting place seem pleasingly appropriate while others are random, even bizarre. Division 11, where you find Chopin (musicien, piano), is especially rewarding. He shares this spot with the composers Bellini (another whose corpse was transferred to Italy) and Cherubini, the writer (unread by me I’m afraid) Bernardin de St Pierre and Alexandre Brongniart, who created this strange and wonderful place; also with another musician (piano), the tiny, hugely talented jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, who died at 36 in 1999. Corot (division 24) is close enough to his contemporary Ingres to make one imagine ghostly midnight feasts when the doors are locked for the night, though Géricault, who might have been of this company, is a tidy distance away. And those whom the guide picks out in divisions 28 to 30 (Marshals and generals of Napoleon: numerous remarkable monuments) are a wildly various lot, the ranks of the military interspersed with such as Brillat-Savarin (gastronome), Beaumarchais (writer for the theatre), Anna de Noailles (poet), Saint-Simon (writer on economics).

What has brought us here, to this city of death on this life-enhancing morning, hundreds of us, old and young, strolling the tomb-lined avenues and inspecting the celebrity graves with varying degrees of reverence? (One lad in a German school party has chosen for the occasion a shirt which instructs: Fuck Barbie; for most at that age, I suppose, death is still a theoretical matter.) For some, perhaps, it is simply another notch on a list of Sights We Have Seen. Others, though, have come to do homage. A crowd of these is assembled in front of the grave of Oscar Wilde, at the top of the cemetery, where he’s housed in a construction by Epstein, the gift of an anonymous woman admirer.

But what purpose do such homages serve? They are not much use to Wilde, or Rossini, or Chopin. I look for Corot and Chopin and Poulenc, as I would look for Berlioz and Truffaut at the cemetery of Montmartre, partly to acknowledge the enrichment they have given me, and partly to identify with them; yet standing before the graves of those one reveres has less to tell one than visits to houses they lived in, where one can see the piano that Bartok played or the pen with which Hardy wrote.

There is also now and then in this place of public spectacle the sense of being a trespasser. This is not one more Paris museum, but a working cemetery. Those remembered now only by families far outnumber the famous. A visitor weeps at the grave of a woman recently dead. A funeral cortege winds its solemn way up the hill to the crematorium. In the midst of death in the Père Lachaise this impossibly beautiful morning, we are in death. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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