Père Lachaise has a completely different feel to other cemeteries I have known, whether in the UK and US, or in Latin America. Cemeteries play so many different roles in cities — too often forgotten is just the sanitary infrastructure, they bury the dead and all of their contagion safely. Paris must have suffered some of the same overflow of bodies, fumes disease as London as its population grew beyond the capacity of local graveyards. They also honour the dead in the name of God, family and country: families remembering those they have lost, cities and nations remembering those who played more public roles. This perhaps is what is most visible here from family to family:
But people like us come to Père Lachaise Cemetery because of all who are buried here. Above all for the two of us, for the role this cemetery played as public space, defensible space– the site of the last stand of the Paris Commune. Upon their defeat, 147 people were lined up against this wall and shot, then buried in a trench here:
Like Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, there is now a cluster here of those who have fought this same struggle. Including Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue, and some of the children of his daughter Jenny Longuet.
On the opposite side, however, there are the much larger monuments to the soldiers who killed them. You learn much about a country from its monuments.
This is why we came, this wall of the martyrs. No one else came near, they clustered instead around the graves now more famous. This gave space to mourn, but I had to mourn too that their struggle and their deaths are passing from common knowledge and wider honour.
We saw the graves of other famous names too, we bought a map at the entrance and stared in amazement at the names upon names of those we knew. Circled them, tried to find them all.
Many of the wonderful momento Mori we stumbled over by chance — like Etienne Gaspard Robertson, ‘a prominent Belgian physicist, stage magician and influential developer of phantasmagoria’:
This sufraggette among them, Hubertine Auclert:
Some we knew to seek out, like early film-maker and purveyor of wonder, Georges Melies:
In the vaults — I confess Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno was a surprise:
Another among them Richard Wright, who lived and died here in Paris.
The biggest surprise – Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (1899 – 1974), Guatemalan author who I have long admired, and never ever expected to find here until I stopped bewildered in front of this Mayan stele.
We sought out Daumier, though, and found him after much effort.
Gustave Dore we never did find. But here are many others that we did: Pierre Bourdieu, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Proust, Nadar, Eluard, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Georges Perec, Apollinaire, Michelet, Saint-Simon, Haussman, Abelard and Heloise and so many others that fully deserve to be in this list, but I could not manage to name them all…
Père Lachaise Cemetery