Friday, 15 May 2015

Walking Among the Stars – Paris’ Cemeteries

By Fabiana Moraes - FranceGuide 2008

On your next trip to Paris, do something that’s impossible anywhere else in the world: Visit Vaslav Nijinsky, Francois Truffaut, Frederic Chopin, Jean de la Fontaine, Edith Piaf, Abelard and Heloise, Man Ray and Jean-Paul Sartre. All for free. How? Well, Parisian cemeteries – especially those in Montmartre and Montparnasse and, or course, Pere-Lachaise – may not look much like exceptional places, and yet what you see there, more often then burials, are quite, smiling tourists with maps in hand.
“Rest in Peace” is not exactly the most appropriate phrase for anyone interred at the legendary Pere-Lachaise cemetery, now visited by up to two million people per year. Once an unremarkable outlying area of Bellville, the 109-arce site (in the 20th arrondissement) became a walk among the stars after one of its illustrious later “residents,” Honore de belzac, wrote stories in which the dead were buried there. Its evolution from simpole potter’s field, building 1803 at the command of Napoleon (the land belonged to Father –pere- Lachaise), to final resting place of hundreds of famous people took only a few years. Today, the site ranks in fame to the like of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph. The first famous occupants of Pere-Lachaise to arrive, in 1817, were La Fontaine and Moliere (both in division 25 of the cemetery) and then Abelard and Heloise (in division 7), whose tomb is one of the cemetery’s most beautiful, with perfect reproductions of their bodies carved in marble.
You probably already know that the highest ratings in the cemetery go to Jim Morrison, who died in 1971 and was buried in division 6. In fact, the leader of the Doors has outshone other very important celebrities, like Chopin, Piaf, Eugene Delacroix, Oscar Wilde and Georges Bizet. One of many, the story of Chopin (1810-1849) is nevertheless very special. At the time of his death, he was a great European celebrity. His burial drew over 5,000 people to Pere-Lachaise. Despite being very well liked in Paris, he had always missed his native city of Warsaw very much. So, his body was buried in Paris, but his heart was returned to his birthplace. On his tomb in Pere-Lachaise is a vase containing soil from Warsaw.

The Montparnasse cemetery is another important final resting place worth visiting, especially if you enjoyed you time in the old vineyard of Father Lachaise. Located in the 14th arrondissement, the Montparnasse site covers 30-acres and honors the memory of such illustrious writes as Samuel Beckett, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant and Julio Cortazar, photographer Man Ray, and actress Jean Seberg (of Breathless). One of the most visited tombs is that of Serge Gainsbourg, the singer-songwriter of the classic “je t’aime… moi non plus.” Young girls sit by his tomb and sigh: Ah, to have been the Brigitte Bardot or Jane Birkin of this rough-edged, but charming guy.There is even a famous Brazilian here: painter Cicero Dias who, together with Pablo Picasso, led one of the most impressive resistance movements against the Nazis during WWII. Pierre Larcousse, who put together the dictionaries that you probably use in French class, is here too.

A cemetery can actually have a certain charm. That’s the feeling you get from the Montmartre cemetery (in the 18th arrondissement), the smallest of the three cemeteries at only 27-acres. Dispite having been made world famous by Audrey Tautou of Amelie and becoming the hangout for laid-back tourists, it still retains its original qualities. This local cemetery is the eternal home of such artists as Stendhal, Truffaut and Russian dancer Nijinsky, whose tomb includes a bronze statue of him smiling during one of his performances. And, if Edith Paif reigns in Pere-Lacaisem then here in Montmartre all ears imaging the voice of the Egyptian-born singer Dalida, who became famous in the French capital and now, on a small cemetery plaza, has a bust in her honor. The 1970s and gay culture in France would not have been the same without her.

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