Home » Arts & Life, biography

Pilgrimages to Paris

By (November 1, 2015) No Comment

1On my last day in Paris I stopped in Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery — or rather, the cemetery for famous people. I was looking for someone, though I wasn’t sure what seeing her tombstone was going to do for me. Her name was Jane Avril: she was a dancer in the Moulin Rouge cabaret and a model for the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s. Red-haired and sharp-nosed, she’s the one on the much-reproduced Divan Japonais poster. She died in 1943, having outlived her fame, and was buried near other celebrated artists whose names lived on longer — Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf…

The cemetery was founded in 1804 as Paris’ dead continued to grow in numbers. (That’s the thing about cemeteries, isn’t it?) Yet Père Lachaise wasn’t immediately popular, so to entice customers city officials moved Molière’s body there, and later the remains of the famed medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise. The hope was that people would want to spend eternity next to famous people, and it turned out to be true. As celebrities pile up in Père Lachaise it has become popular with tourists as well as the dead. Now there is a waiting list to be buried there. The cemetery occupies a large hilly plot in the 20th arrondissement– like a green thumbprint on the far right-hand side of a map of Paris– and has its own metro station. You can’t miss it.

2The cemetery is enclosed within a high stone wall, interrupted by a few entrances for cars and pedestrians. Wide cobblestoned roads divide the grounds into numbered plots, but within the plots there are no paths and no particular order. A map posted by each entrance directs visitors to famous graves via numerical coordinates. It turns out that Jane isn’t famous enough to be listed alongside Jim Morrison and Marcel Proust.. I was told I could inquire about her tombstone at the bureau administratif on the other side of the 110-acre plot, but I decided to wander instead, even though there was little chance of stumbling on her. There are about a million people buried in Père Lachaise and its grid is filled in as if pixilated with marble squares. Families huddle together, with plaques inscribed “à notre papy” or “mort pour la France.” The grounds are dotted with tiny, pointy-roofed mausoleums ornamented with stained glass, like gothic cathedrals commemorating a citizen instead of a saint. There are a few classical temples too and a Columbarium, filled with shelves and drawers of ashes, each carefully labeled with names and dates like an oversized filing cabinet. It’s a shrine where sunlight streams through skylights and empty Evian bottles litter the spaces as yet untaken.

Taking the Avenue Circulaire to Division 89 and making a right on the Avenue Carette, I headed toward Oscar Wilde’s tombstone, under the vague impression that perhaps Jane would be nearby since their lives overlapped. Before she was a dancer Jane had an affair with Robert Sherard, friend and later biographer of Wilde. In the late 1880s and 1890s she would have run into him in cabarets like the Chat Noir or dance halls like the Bal du Elysée Montmartre. In fact, in 1895, the year Wilde was tried in England for sodomy, Lautrec drew a watercolor portrait of him and included him and Jane in the audience of a cabaret scene. Somehow I assumed that the cemetery might be organized like a library– alphabetically, chronologically, or thematically- but instead the cemetery reflects the higgledy-piggledy order of deaths. Children lie next to their parents; M. Patel born in Bombay in 1903 is interred next to the Famille Perdon; and a few sepulchers have yet to reach closure, like the one still waiting for its tenant, 1917- .

3Wilde’s tombstone is easy to spot: first because of the gaggle of people staring at it, then because of the tall plexiglass barrier encircling the stone. The plexi — and even the stone in places — is smeared with lipstick kisses. The sphinx carved into the marble sports a red mouth too (as does Wilde himself in Lautrec’s portrait). Bouquets of dead flowers lie on the ground, along with poems and notes on napkins, held down with pebbles. The tomb is a hodgepodge of references. The inscription on the back of the tomb emphasizes Wilde’s education — his first-class degrees from Oxford, the Newdigate Prize for poetry he won in 1878 — then shifts abruptly to a Latin quotation from Job XXIX.22 that the King James version translates as “after my words they spake not again; and my speech dropped upon them.” It seems a subtle and appropriate epitaph for a writer well known for his quips. But those are not the tomb’s last words. The inscription shifts tone again to cite a few lines of Wilde’s own “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

Who are the outcasts here? The mourners or the mourned? Wilde’s death and burial in France was itself a sort of exile after his release from prison in Great Britain.

Wilde’s particular story of rise and fall may be why his grave is such a popular pilgrimage site for tourists and fans, and why the notes left there read “we love you!” I saw one couple get their photo taken as they kissed the plexiglass, though an ineffective sign in English and French begs visitors to respect the gravesite, citing the costs of cleaning and maintaining it. Other pilgrims just sat there on the low curb separating the graves from one of the many cobbled roads that crisscross the cemetery. They took photos of the tomb, though it would be easy enough to find a better one on the internet. It’s hard not to wonder what the irreverent Wilde would have made of all this.

To wander through a cemetery is in some ways the opposite of a pilgrimage, however — though the journey there is intentional and directed, the experience of being there is anything but. Everywhere the paths are broken and the associations overlapping, so much so that the tombstones can be literally illegible and metaphorically hard to read. Why does Wilde’s tomb cite the Bible in Latin while drawing on ancient Egyptian iconography? Why does Dominique Gully’s tombstone (1952-2002) read “il aimait les Stones, Beethoven, and la verite” [sic]? At first I thought it referred to rocks, not rock and roll. On the day I was there the jumble of associations also included a Jewish 4funeral, which I tried to watch from a discreet distance because the etiquette of cemeteries (as shown at Wilde’s tomb) is unclear. Should I remove my sun hat? Is it okay to take a photo with my phone? My French wasn’t good enough to catch more than the words “dieu eternelle.”

From its beginnings Père Lachaise was a non-sectarian cemetery: Napoleon Bonaparte established it with the post-revolutionary decree that everyone had an equal right to burial and city cemeteries would accept bodies regardless of religion. This open admissions policy was a radical move at the time, but as the cemetery became more and more popular the admissions standards had to be tightened. Now one must be a resident of Paris to be buried there — which would disqualify Jim Morrison, the cemetery’s biggest star. Morrison’s grave has become one of rock and roll’s most popular pilgrimages — with people leaving beer cans at his tomb the way people leave kisses at Wilde’s. The two men are strange bedfellows perhaps, but also oddly compatible– with their oversized appetites for pleasure and attention and their long after-lives. Again, we return to outcasts – people who were thrown out of a social circle in their lifetimes, re-inscribed in this cemetery, and now sought after for their outsider-ness by new crowds.

So why do tourists flock there? Why am I there? It’s one thing to visit the grave of someone you knew. But what do any of us expect to experience at a stranger’s grave?  What’s so interesting about a cemetery full of famous people? It must be something about the pull of proximity—how we will travel great distances just to be near whatever we value. Like original art works, celebrities have a sort of aura, a unique specialness that we want to be a part of. During their lifetimes fame may be a boundary between them and us, but in death we may be able to share it, to get close to people otherwise inaccessible to us. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin famously claimed that the art of the past had an “aura” that reproductions could never match. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” he wrote, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” It’s that desire for presence in time and space that visiting Père Lachaise satisfies.


I saw another version of the gravitational pull of the aura at the Louvre, where I made a different sort of pilgrimage to see the crowds who pay homage to the Mona Lisa. In the writing class I teach to undergraduate art students I hear the same story over and over: how so many of these American teenagers go abroad, line up to see that famous smile, and are disappointed. They see only the crowds, and wonder why everyone snaps photos of an image everywhere reproduced. Their experience of the Mona Lisa is inevitably an experience of mass culture, not of artistic originality or uniqueness. Despite Benjamin’s claims, they prefer the reproductions to the original paintings, and one can hardly blame them. When I got to the Louvre I wanted their experience of the crowd more than my own experience of the painting. In that I was not disappointed. The room was so full of people hoisting their cameras on selfie sticks to get a shot of the painting in real life that it was impossible to see anything else. It’s the fame of that painting that matters now—in fact, there’s another Da Vinci painting down the hall that is completely ignored.

The herd, then, is not the problem but the point. We need to make these pilgrimages in large groups; we want to press against each other as we have the same experience as the person next to us. The overflow at Père Lachaise, the tumble of gravestones tightly compressed and the walls lined with cremated remains stacked on top of each other, is its main attraction. Like babies who calm down when they are swaddled tightly, the confinement is comforting. It reassures us that we won’t be alone for one of the loneliest experiences of our lives. So I didn’t find Jane and I didn’t understand Wilde any better from seeing his grave or standing near his bones, but now I can imagine the appeal of being buried there alongside them.

As I left I passed the memorial for the crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009 with its alphabetical list of the 228 victims’ names in several languages. It was a disquieting reminder of deaths faraway and too near: I would be getting on an Air France flight to return home later that day. En route to Charles de Gaulle I stopped for lunch at the Café Sarah Bernhardt and listened to the waiter complain about “les chinois” when an elderly Asian couple left one of his tables without answering his “au revoir.”  Au revoir: goodbye and to see again. Endings are universal, daily, inevitable, and (maybe) never completely final.

Victoria Olsen teaches expository writing at New York University. An earlier essay by her on Jane Avril appeared in our October issue; her other essays for Open Letters Monthly include “Looking for Laura,” on Virginia Woolf’s half-sister Laura Stephen, and “Hot and Cold,” a review of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.