Wednesday, 15 May 2013

People are Dying to Get In

Death and Taxes
This was the post title I'd originally planned.  Bill and I managed to bring back some sort of French flu and we have languished and coughed for weeks. Bill hasn't run more than around the block for ages. I'm just beginning to feel like a human with a future instead of a near corpse awaiting release.  

I've also been working on my US tax returns (we ex-pats get an extra two months).  Of course the computer rebelled, Microsoft having decided it didn't like the old files with important data.  

Thankfully, Bill is an able computer technician.  I'm probably tempting fate by saying this but the process wasn't nearly as painful this time.  Probably because I'd done a bit of ground work at the start of the year and my files were in better order.  

Touch wood, I won't have just provoked an audit or something.  I know I'm honest and well-intentioned, but I'm also a tightwad and no tax expert, so there is always the chance that I've erred in some way...  But let's talk about something pleasant, like visiting a cemetery.

Pere LaChaise 
The first I ever heard of this place was in reading about Nancy Mitford, who spent her last years in Paris.  Her lover, Charles DeGaulle's chief of staff Colonel Gaston Palewski (who probably didn't much love her), was upset that he couldn't be  buried in Pere LaChaise.  I'm not sure why he couldn't manage it, perhaps the rules were even more strict 30-40 years ago.  

I should have known this 110 acre cemetery was on a big hill; Palewski whinged not just that he couldn't get in, he couldn't get a good location overlooking the city.  People do have funny ideas about death, don't they?  

Given the number of people who have been buried there over 200 years, I almost wonder if it always was a hill.  Of course we did it the hard way.  I've just found we could have gone to a different Metro stop and started at the top instead of at the bottom.  Oh well...


Oscar Wilde's Grave
There is something a bit strange about a cemetery that doubles as a tourist attraction.  We bought a map at the newsagent next to the Metro station (Pere LaChaise).  It located the graves some of the more famous persons interred within.  I didn't know a lot of them, in fact I only recognise about 20 of the more famous names.  The problem of fame and tourists seems to most plague the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.  They have both been fenced off to prevent further desecration and sure enough we found groups of kids around each.

I was disappointed that reflection on the glass enclosure around Wilde's grave meant I couldn't read the inscription that appeared to give a precis of his life. I was electrified when Bill excitedly exclaimed 'Shelley, his bits!  His bits!  They've chopped his willy off!'  How embarrassing.  I've no idea what 'bits' an Assyrian angel on the grave of a gay man should have, but I didn't want to talk about it at that volume amongst strangers, and I certainly wasn't going to peer closely enough to verify the details.  I couldn't make Bill shut-up, he was having so much fun, so I just snarled that I didn't know him and walked off.  Humourless of me, I know; living in Britain hasn't completely changed me yet. As it happens, it turns out Bill was right.

Cemetery / Park / Gallery
I'm probably a bit weird in that I find many cemeteries beautiful and peaceful, particularly old ones.  That said, I really couldn't enjoy the British cemetery at Montecassino, Italy.  The markers give names and ages and, believe me, it is upsetting.  

Most cemeteries, though, have a longer history and a wider age range.  There are sad stories but also long lives to celebrate and large markers indicating some prosperity.  

People also demonstrate a wide range of ideas in their selection of monuments, from exquisite to egotistical, tasteful to trashy, laudable to laughable (I enjoyed that bit of alliteration).  

Visitors in cemeteries seem to walk - even with their dogs - more sedately, speak more quietly and seem generally more reflective than they do elsewhere. I've gone to Preston Cemetery, our 'local', on a couple of runs and found it made me feel more alive than usual, though I was careful to stay away from anyone involved in an actual funeral.  Did anyone ever see and enjoy Harold and Maude?  

At Pere LaChaise, there is wonderful dignity in these tiny little 'houses' with the family names engraved over the door.  Most seem to just have empty shelves inside, a few had chairs.  Some of the chairs were crumbling with age.  I couldn't help but wonder about the stories behind them.  Some of the statues are as much art as memorial.

Some show the person themself or give an idea of their life's work.  Others express the grief felt at their passing or hope at meeting again in heaven.

This photo enabled me to find more information, just in case you wanted to know:

Rest with Jim Morrison, Federic Chopin or Molière has a price:  2329 euros for a thirty year concession.  3441 euros for fifty years.  And again, this is a base rate with a concession of two meters by one meter.  Concessions are traded in perpetuity from 10,911 euros.

Concession 10 years:  € 688
Lease 30 years: € 2329
Concession 50 years: € 3441
Perpetual concession:  €10,911


Jeanne Beaudon, AKA Jane Avril

Where I come from, people get buried and there is plenty of space to do so.  I gather this is less common in Europe and increasingly less common here in Britain where land is at a premium.  Most folks here appear to be cremated and their ashes scattered.  I've not made any decisions about this for myself.  As a kid I always though cremation sounded horrific and being 'scattered' seems very impermanent.  Sounds like I haven't actually got my head around being dead, eh?  

Sarah Bernhardt

However, if those ideas are a little unpalatable, I find the concept of an ossuary entirely chilling.  I first met this idea in John Connolly's excellent book, The Black Angel, which talks about a very famous ossuary in Prague.  Though I've been to Prague several times, I haven't visited and don't plan to.  I have been to one of the old cemeteries there, and it's impressive.

What I didn't realise when we were in Paris - and perhaps it's just as well - is that Pere LaChaise also has an ossuary.  Nancy Mitford apparently knew this.  

She teased and comforted Palewski by telling him that it was just as well he wouldn't be buried there.  She said that was where Chanel went to find old bones to ground up and put into her cosmetics.  So, that gives me other than my original tightwad reason not to splash out on Chanel make-up.

If you want more pictures of the amazing sights of Pere LaChaise, here is a video.  I suggest pushing the 'mute' button.


Carolyn said...

I'm sos orry you've been unwell Shelley and I hop eyou get better soon! We visited Pere Lachaise too, but didn't take any photos. Like you, I started to feel creeped out, and the huge inappropriateness of a cemetery as a tourist attraction started to bother us a lot.

Shelley said...

I don't mind that people want to see the beautiful memorials or to visit the graves of people they admire. It's another form of immortality as far as I'm concerned. What I don't get is the desecration of graves as a sign of 'affection' or 'respect'. I think that's despicable behaviour.