Friday, June 21, 2013

City of the Dead

We were living in Louisiana when my father turned 40. To celebrate, his mother and two of his siblings came for a visit. I don't believe any of them had been to Louisiana before. I remember my grandmother told me not to be rude to the waitress when I ordered a Barq's (she didn't realize it's a brand of root beer). We also used crab legs from dinner (the longest dinner on the planet) to decorate my dad's cake. It was that sort of birthday.

What stands out in my mind the most though is the tour of Saint Louis Cemetery #1. I'm not sure what possessed us to do this - June in New Orleans is probably not the best time to walk through a cemetery in the middle of the day but we did. Most of us did - if I remember correctly my parents didn't go but I'm not totally sure that's correct. I vividly remember seeing Marie Laveau's tomb, groups of three red Xs everywhere and offerings left to the Voodoo Queen. People would mark the tomb with the Xs or leave Madame Laveau something in hopes that her spirit would grant them a wish or good fortune. Some dispute that she's buried in the tomb that was highlighted on the tour. Honestly, her tomb made me nervous (I was 9 or 10 at the time).

New Orleans is famous for its above ground cemeteries often referred to as "cities of the dead." Families would build ornate tombs for burial. The tombs often resemble buildings (churches mostly) and look like mini cities. Many people believe that this was the practice because of the fact that New Orleans is below sea level (stories of bodies floating down the Mississippi are common on ghost and cemetery tours and there is truth to that as well). However, it's probably more likely that these cities of the dead exist because of the French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans. They brought their practice of above ground tombs with them to the city and the tradition stayed. After seeing Père Lachaise cemetery today, I believe this more than I did before.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. The latter distinction is probably because of the number of famous people buried here: Edith Piaf (whom I visited today), Balzac, Proust, Colette, Sarah Bernhardt, and of course, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Like the Eiffel Tower,
Père Lachaise is one of those places I've always wanted to visit. It may sound morbid but cemeteries like this are amazing places to see how we honor those that have left us. Families spent time and money to build these structures and you can see many are still lovingly cared for. The artistry among the tombs is amazing - sculptures, stained glass windows, ornate doors - these were not meant to be forgotten. It's not the final resting place of just the famous; the Emperor Napoleon declared that all people could be buried within the cemetery

Of course, it's the famous that people come to see (like me). I hopped on the Metro and easily found my way to the Père Lachaise stop and there I was, armed with a map (that was missing some key information like names of avenues and chemins (paths) that I would need to find my way around. I was able to procure an official map and ran into several of the same people along the way to find Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf's graves. It was like a weird version of a scavenger hunt; we spread out to find a particular grave (like Edith Piaf's - so hard to find) and then either point them out or give odd directions using other tombs or markers. I made it to Jim Morrison's grave with the help of four Canadians. Interestingly, they were not all together and found that they have a mutual acquaintance. I did not run into anyone I know today.

Jim Morrison died in Paris in 1971. I've read several different accounts of his death over the years. Some say he died of natural causes; others that he overdosed. Some people don't believe he's dead. He and Elvis are spotted all the time. There was no autopsy so there is no definitive cause of death. His grave has been vandalized and scandalized over the years. There is now a barrier around it and glass in front. People still leave items for him and drink whiskey when they find the grave. The tombs on either side are heavily graffitited, proving that even in death we can't have nice things. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for The Doors. When I think of L.A. in the 60s, they're who come to mind. I'm partial to "Love Street", "Love Her Madly" and "L.A. Woman". 

Morrison is not easy to find and that's on purpose. The amount of vandalism done to the area since he was buried there is extraordinary. For a long time there was no marker. The cemetery map is not the easiest thing to follow but I fell in with the Canadians and we made our way together. I think Morrison would have liked the fact that his grave has caused problems over the years. I wish I had brought my iPod with me today so I could have listened to a song or two.

I took a few pictures (including the graffitied tombs) and moved along. As I was walking towards the Avenue Circulaire, I was able to direct two groups to Jim Morrison - I helped! I made my way to Edith Piaf next (found with the assistance of two Italian girls I met as I came into the cemetery) and then onto Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde's grave is another one that has undergone some changes in recent years. Wilde died while basically in exile in Paris following imprisonment on indecency charges. The tradition at his grave was for women to put on lipstick and kiss the tomb (this started sometime in the 1990s). Wes Craven depicts this in his contribution to the film Paris, Je T'aime. I'm a little sad that there's now glass and barriers up around his tomb. I feel like Oscar Wilde would have liked the attention. It hasn't stopped everyone; the tomb next to Wilde's has a broken cross on top of it because of someone trying to continue the tradition. There are some kisses far up on the sides above the glass. Definitely adds to the pilgrimage feel of visiting.

But I also understand why his family made the choice to have the tomb cleaned and protected. It's their right to preserve the tomb as they see fit just as it was for Jim Morrison's family. If they're not preserved there won't be anything left for the next generation of "pilgrims". 

I ended my day back along the Seine (navigating the Paris Metro like a boss). I found an artist near the Louvre who was painting lovely watercolors and I purchased a few from her. We discussed Montmartre a bit (tomorrow's destination). She told me to take time to sit in one of the parks and enjoy the view. We also discussed the weather (I guess this is normal everywhere). It didn't rain today but was overcast and cool - perfect cemetery walking weather.  

So tomorrow - Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur. And yes, I'm planning to go to the Café des 2 Moulins (Two Windmills) where Amélie worked. Don't judge.

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