Our approach differed, as we planned our outing to Père-Lachaise. My husband read about the most famous cemetery in Paris and told me, “According to the author of this book about the cemetery, ‘The French cultivate death as stately, a final performance….’ ” He rattled off the names of philosophers and musicians, poets and statesmen, bankers and revolutionaries. “Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Moliere, Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison and Isadora Duncan.”
I was absorbed by the lives represented, the stories that lay beneath the sculptures that honor their lives or demonstrate the depth of the grief of those left behind. I wondered, “If we could cultivate their collective talent, and discard their misdeeds and misfortunes….” Who knows?
These were our perspectives, as we began to tread lightly through the avenues of loss and remembrance. The famed and unknown lay in proximity, their lives entwined in death, as they may have been in life.
So many impressions wash over us. The sun casts shadows over the graves of past heroes and ancient bards. The intrusive sounds of current city life drift over the high walls that encircle Père-Lachaise, the automobiles and sirens and cell-phone encumbered walkers.
They begin to fade, replaced by the soothing sounds of birds from the trees above, as we wind our way to the interior. Visitors point and whisper in quiet conversations. We overhear a tour guide noting the life and accomplishments of Frederic Chopin to her small group.
Each grave tells its own story, touching every joy and sorrow man has known. The grave of an infant who lived for six days rests next to his father who lived sixty years. Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein rest together with a shared tombstone. Collections of grave sites and memorials to bravery reflect the grief and losses of all the wars and revolutions that have touched Paris and the world beyond.
I am drawn to the flowing sculptures, sad guardians of the dead. One majestic statue depicts a woman defeated, her aged marble head in her hands. Another reveals a serene matriarch, hands in lap, her simple shawl draped around her shoulders, as if calmly watching over those who have joined her and those who will follow through the years.
Finally, we are stilled by the stark simplicity of one war memorial. We stood before a white monument with a small child posed, reaching upwards to write her sweet inscription on a broad expanse of marble. “France souviens-toi.” “France remembers you.”
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