What does one do on a beautiful autumn afternoon in Paris? Head to a terrace and sip on a glass of rosé? Stroll along the banks of the Seine and soak up the sunshine? Not if you’re Kim you don’t. You head to a cemetery.
My last seven days have been very much less than perfect (in a magnificent understatement), so you’d hardly blame me for looking for a giant hole to fall in and escape the world. But that’s not why yesterday afternoon I found myself in a burial ground, it just so happens that my usual long walk home takes me past the Montmartre cemetery and for the first time, I decided to have a wander through.
‘Paris is dead’, the hipster avant gardists might say. Well it seems alive and kicking to me, but it certainly is full of dead, this beautiful graveyard being one of many scattered throughout the capital. Given the host of other beautiful things there are to explore in Paris, a cemetery is a pretty tough sell. But for me, there’s so much silent beauty to be found, I might just take a detour through it every day. Plus if you’re in a bad mood, it can remind you quite convincingly that things could be a whole lot worse.
If it’s serene solitude you seek, there are fewer more peaceful places to sit and read, or contemplate the meaning of life (and death, of course). You won’t hear a peep out of the residents, and the traffic and city noise refuses to penetrate as if you’ve actually just stepped right into the underworld. I saw a few singular people doing exactly that as I wandered through, happily ensconced between the tombs, perhaps reading the histories of the souls who rested beside them.
Personally, the silence barely registers with me at all, and instead I feel surrounded by centuries of chatter, generated by the stories of those who lie buried beneath the ground. Their Paris would have been so very different to mine, and as I passed grave after grave looking at the dates bookending each life, I imagined the experiences they would have had, what they would have taken from, and contributed to this uniquest of cities. Soon after this had occurred to me, I happened upon the tomb of Louise Weber, or ‘La Goulue’, the creator of the French cancan. You can’t get more Paris-stopped-in-time than that.
If the stories of ordinary Parisians of ages past weren’t interesting enough, there are plenty of writers, painters, scientists, politicians and celebrities of the golden age who are laid to rest here. In Montmartre you can find the graves of Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas Fils and Edgar Degas, though it’s the two bigger cemeteries of Père Lachaise and Montparnasse that contain most of the famous names. Here you can pay your respects to, amongst many more, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Molière, Balzac, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde (former) and Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (latter).
In this digital age where only the photo seems to be important, there’s something quite arresting about physically being next to the resting place of a great figure, as if you can somehow absorb part of their spirit just by being close. In any case, the time of elaborate burials is over, so you’ll be walking through a beautiful museum of mourning filled with statues, sculpture and messages of love, even if you don’t know the famous names. Doesn’t it do us all good to just sit and reflect every once in a while?
For more info about the three major cemeteries and some of the lesser know ones dotted in and outside the périphérique, click here.