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,
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
“America is my country,” she said, “but Paris is my
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
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
Good-bye Gertrude…Good-bye Isadora … Good-bye
Jim Morrison too.
Near Place Gambetta
Information: Phone: 1 43 70 70 33
Open 8:30 –6:30 daily
You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at:
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.
www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at
(More about the writer.)