Lately it’s been really hard to escape the dead. The triple whammy of Toussaint weekend (All Hallows Eve followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’ days) produced a lot of thought about what Le Monde called “map making between two worlds”. Some of the voices one heard were predictable, as florists bemoaned smaller sales and funeral directors debated cremation.
But there were also some fascinating contributors – such as Marie Frédérique Bacqué (President of the Societé de Thanatologie), Damien Le Guay (Vice President of the Comité National d’ethique du funeraire) and François Michaud-Nérard – who runs both Paris’ municipal funeral service* and Père Lachaise cemetery.
Their ruminations had titles more like those of books or movies (“The Dead Who Sustain the Living” or “Cemetery Without a Church”). Michaud-Nérard’s anecdotes about Père Lachaise were especially priceless, too. One of the city’s top ten attractions, the sprawling 19th century graveyard functions like its own metropolis.
After forty-eight hours of rain, All Souls dawned mostly sunny. Whether or not that made a difference, Père Lachaise was busy. In a spot this old and eminent, it’s startling to see so much activity.
Of course the cemetery’s most popular spots are always crowded with tourists; for Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Piaf, every day is a big one. But, for once, the humbler folk looked just as good as the stars.
Nothing, however, quiets the cemetery’s true cults – graves which play host to what Michaud-Nérard calls “strange and disturbing rituals”. One of these is the resting spot of Spiritist Allan Kardec, always completely buried in bouquets. Installed in a mini-fortress, his bronze bust is behind chains and boasts its own plaque of rules. (No touching, no souvenirs, no attaching oneself to the monument). Devotees from around the world pray here for hours and it’s not unusual to find one in a trance.
There’s also ‘Victor Noir’ – the pen name of a journalist shot and killed by one of Napoléon III’s nephews. The statue of Noir dead has a prominent bulge in his crotch and the attentions of female visitors give it a glowing patina. Among those who’ve been up close and personal: Dita Von Teese.
One of my favourite tombs is that of DJ Sextoy (Delphine Palatsi). Sextoy, whose heart gave out at the age of 33, was a techno specialist. She spun for Jean-Paul Gaultier and the mayor of Paris. It is thanks to the latter she lies at rest in Père Lachaise.
There is also the case of André Chabot, who lies to call himself a “necropolitan promeneur”. The author of works such as Eroticism in Cemeteries, Chabot has an archive of 180,000 images. He may be the world’s top authority on funeral art. Recently, he managed to wangle himself a derelict chapel. Rebuilt as La Memoire Necropolitaine, this will eventually both Chabot and his femme.
Maybe this is what makes Père Lachaise so lively. Each generation here wanted to be seen – and each is defined by tastes all its own. Jostle and compete they may, yet it’s all on equal terms.
* Dedicated to helping citizens finish life with dignity, the city’s funeral services even offer a €789 “low cost” service (must be booked online). Their main web site also offers free downloadable copies of Michaud-Nérard’s thoughtful book La Revolution de la mort.