A Fine and Public Place

November 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
We try to do right by the dead, to give them the best possible resting place. But what’s best? Apparently, Americans and French have very different ideas, as Polly’s pictures last week of a Paris cemetery reminded me.

I’m not much drawn to cemeteries, but Père Lachaise gets two stars in the Michelin Guide. It’s the final resting place of Chopin and Comte, Abelard and Heloise, Oscar Wilde, Modigiliani, Proust . . . . I was in Paris (this was many years ago) with some free time, so I went.

It didn’t look at all like a cemetery, at least not the cemeteries I had seen in the US. The one across from the University here seems typical.

The cemetery road curves gently through the lawns. Grass separates the headstones, with some space even between family members. The headstones are low, some even flat on the ground.

But at Père Lachaise, the lanes were narrower, with no grass to be seen. Instead of headstones, there were building-like structures tall enough that you might walk inside, crowded together with little or no space in between.

Sometimes, the structures were built right behind one another on a steep incline.

You could climb the steps and look down at the brick footpath below.

Nowhere to be found were the rolling lawns that I thought would be more appropriate for the eminent figures of a culture - Molière, Piaf, and the rest. Instead, what I was seeing was more like a scaled-down urban scene, the mausoleums resembling the stone apartment buildings of the city.

Then I realized : Our visions of the ideal life are reflected in the landscapes we provide for the dead. When Americans die, they go to the countryside. When the French die, they go to Paris.


yli said...

great insight indeed!

SARA said...

A beautiful post Jay. I know that in Italy the cemetaries are similar(Paris) due to the lack of land. Each family has it's "stone house" that usually rests six to eight members of a family.
When visiting friends in Italy I went with them to their families burial site. There was a man who allowed us in opening the iron gate. His job was also to light each tombs family lantern at dusk...and as you say, not a bit of grass could be seen..all stone walk...I found it to be a very beautiful and serene place.