Père Lachaise

I just visited Paris for the first time and had a very hard time coming back home. It’s a big understatement to say that I fell in love with the city. The delicious pastries, the amazing traditional bistro food cooked with passion, the tangible feeling of a long history everywhere you go, the excellent public transportation, the incredible museums and bookstores, … I could go on and on. I could see myself living a very happy life there.

When booking this trip (meant as an early celebration of our 10th wedding anniversary in 2011), I confess that I didn’t have many plans. Other than eating and walking all over the city, that is. Of course I might end up seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Orsay, and all that, but I wasn’t really planning touristy activities. Whatever happened would have been fun, with one exception: there had to be one sure visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery. Why one would want to visit a cemetery on a romantic get away? You could probably try to psychoanalyze this to no end and you’d be wrong on most accounts, so I’ll give you a couple of clues.

First, Dead Can Dance is one of my all time favorite music groups (I wouldn’t call them a “band”) and one of their most intriguing album covers was from Within The Realm of a Dying Sun. Ever since I learned that this sad but beautiful artwork was a mausoleum at Père Lachaise (back in the 80’s), I vowed to see it in person some day. Second, back when I was studying photography in the 90’s, I used to enjoying going out to look for unusual angles on unusual subjects; in that search, I visited cemeteries that would have interesting artwork. One of them, was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA. At first, I was just attracted by the look of moss covered, decaying stone or cement (yes, I used to listen to a lot of goth/darkwave music). Later on, though, I started to enjoy the sense of peace in those places and developed an interest, if not the reverence, for the history and the lives of the people in those resting places. There’s quite a bit of sadness in a cemetery, but there’s also a sense that someone’s life left behind something tangible for us to appreciate even in the brief history contained in a epitaph, in their dates of birth and of passing. The melancholy mood is there, of course, that sense that humanity as a whole was diminished by a life that was extinguished. I discovered, though, that when I close my eyes in front a mausoleum, I feel inspired by the known or imagined contributions that those people would have left behind.

I’m really glad that in the midst of our time in gorgeous, but tourist mobbed, loud, and often hectic Paris, Lisa and I took a couple of hours to walk around serene Père Lachaise. We agreed that it turned out to be a very inspiring time for both of us. We paid homage to Jim Morrison, which on that day had his tombstone draped with a Brazilian flag. The sight inspired me to revisit my Doors music collection and to watch When You’re Strange, a great documentary from 2009 (which was actually being shown in theaters in Paris this summer). We also visited Oscar Wilde, one of my favorite writers, whose mausoleum is covered by red lipstick imprints. We tried to find Brillat-Savarin (“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”, author of The Phisiology of Taste quoted on the opening of the original Iron Chef), but got lost in the process.

The part of the visit that got us really down was the section reserved to honor the victims of the WWII holocaust. The appropriately stark and harrowing artwork is a slap on your face that gets you out of whatever romantic reveries you might be entertaining and reminds you that mankind is capable of creating horror as well as beauty.