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In Paris, I Visit Cemeteries

by

Arnie Greenberg

I know it sounds bizarre but as a historian, I enjoy standing on the hallowed ground of people who changed their society or their world. I also enjoy meeting new people. It’s after the fact of course, but when I find a person who contributed something special but was never written about, I feel I’ve opened another door to history.

One can visit the great cemeteries of the world and they all interest me for the same reason. Arlington in Virginia comes to mind. That’s a very historical place, no doubt about it. But…you have to understand that based on my educational background, France has a central spot in my knowledge and interest. So, I usually visit the cemeteries of Paris like the one in Montmartre or the one in Montparnasse.  At Montmartre the great luminaries that rest there include, Berlioz, Offenbach, Nijinsky, and the film director Francois Truffaut. I’ve even visited Maurice Utrillo’s grave at the nearby St. Vincent cemetery.

The smallest of them all is in Montparnasse and I go there to see the French Colonel who was unjustly tried for treason in 1894. Of course, I’m talking about Alfred Dreyfus, the man who was sent to Devil’s Island on trumped up charges of having sold military secrets to the Germans. The trial of his Jewish officer was the reason for the great political scandal that rocked France before WW I.

The cemetery was planned by Napoleon who, for reasons of possible health hazards

Wanted the cemetery to be outside the city. But that city has grown and there are many modern people resting there with some of the heroes of the 19th century. Here you can also find people who made the news more recently such as Guy de Maupassant, the novelist, Camille Saint-Saens, one of France’s greatest post-Romantic musicians, Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer, composer and pop icon of the 1970s and 80s. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are there too as is the Hollywood actress, Jean Seberg.

For those of you who remember the art movements of the twenties and thirties, you can visit Man ray, the American photographer-painter. Tristan Tzara, the Rumanian leader of the Dada movement in Paris. Even Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright who wrote Waiting For Godot and spent most of his life in Paris, is resting near the cenotaph of Charles Baudelaire, a poet and critic of the 19th century.

Yes, there is much to see and a sense of peace under the trees, amidst the statues, crypts, cenotaphs and monuments just behind a wall, away from the hustle-bustle of Montparnasse. But the largest, by far, and the most prestigious in Paris is the Pere Lachaise, set on a wooded hill in a working class district to the North East. One requires a guide to find your way around. They are available nearby.

Named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Pere de la Chaise, the land was purchased by Napoleon who created the reserve in 1803. It has been expanded six times since then.

It would take the better part of a day or more to visit it properly. Don’t rush. There is much to see.

I have a specific reason for going here. For over thirty years I taught about, wrote about and researched about the American expatriate writer and art collector, Gertrude Stein. In a way, I made my living from the life and work of Miss Stein so I feel that I must pay homage to the lady and place a rose on her grave every summer. (After all, it was Gertrude who said, “…a rose is a rose is a rose…”). It is always with a special feeling that I arrive at the plain stone making the spot where Gertrude lies with her life’s partner, Alice B Toklas. I have never arrived there without finding fresh flowers on her grave. Gertrude lived for more than forty years in Paris and it is fitting that she should remain there.

“America is my country,” she said, “but Paris is my hometown.”

  They lie at the top end of the cemetery and to get there one has to climb and walk a great distance. On the way, there is much to see. I stop to remember Edith Piaf, “the little sparrow” who was this century’s greatest pop singer. She stood for the working class people of her beloved city. I stop too at the grave of Modigliani and notice that his wife Jeanne died only a day or two later. I remember that she committed suicide after ‘Modi’ died. He was the best-loved painter of his time. He died of Tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol. It was a tragic ending for them both. 

The monument of Oscar Wilde attracts me. Jacob Epstein, another of my artistic heroes, sculpted it. Wilde was a great wit who died in Paris in 1900. 

Like Sartre and de Beauvoir, the Pere Lachaise has its own lovers. Here we find the resting place of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. Cinema after WWII would not have been the same without them. The same can be said about the theatrical performances of Sarah Bernhardt who was laid to rest there in 1923. 

There are hundreds of others including Frederic Chopin, the great Polish composer, Molliere, the earlier dramatist whose remains were brought here. 

I especially enjoy the artistic design of Victor Noir’s life-size statue. He was the journalist shot by Pierre Bonaparte, a cousin of Napoleon III. 

Balzac and Proust are there too. Can there be more talented writers. But the most moving site in this vast reserve is the wall where government soldiers shot the last of the Communard rebels in 1871. It is a hallowed pilgrimage site for left-wing sympathizers. It is called the Mur des Federes (Soldiers in service of the Commune). 

In the center of the cemetery there is a large Columbarium built in the late 19th century to store the ash remains of those cremated. The ashes of people from every walk of life

Are there, including those of the famous American dancer, Isadora Duncan. Did you know that she was a neighbor and friend of Gertrude Stein.

Max Ernst the painter, writer and sculptor is nearby. His work can be seen at the Pompidou Center. There are replicas of his statues all over France. I recently saw one near the Chateau of Amboise in the Loire valley. 

Add such names as Georges Seurat the neo-impressionist famous for his ‘pointillism’. He died in 1891. The landscape painter Camille Pissarro rests there in the beginning at the 7th division. His stone is set inside a plain grill. Another great portrait painter Jean Auguste Ingres lies in the 9th since 1867. So too does Daumier who died in 1879. The landscape painter Corot is in the 14th since 1885. In the 25th lies Eugene Delacroix. He asked for a simple stone and got it.

The commotion in the Pere Lachaise these days is due to the young people who have discovered that Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors was buried there in 1971. At first I felt that noise and movement were not welcome in this sanctuary but I now feel that if the next generation still shows reverence for the dead, their heroes have a place there too. I welcome them. Maybe they’ll want to know who some of the others are who rest there.

In the meantime, I’ve visited Gertrude and Alice. I have left a pebble on the headstone, as is my custom, to remind other visitors that someone else cared to visit. I feel a certain warmth as I leave this place. Great men and women repose in one of the most perfect cemeteries in one of the greatest cities in the world. I can’t think of a better resting place. 

I hear a policeman’s whistle and look at my watch. It is nearing 6:30. The gates will soon be locked. It’s a peaceful place but I’m not yet ready to be locked in, even for one night.

Good-bye Gertrude…Good-bye Isadora … Good-bye Jim Morrison too.

Near Place Gambetta
Open 8:30 –6:30 daily

Information: Phone: 1 43 70 70 33

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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