Tag Archives: Memento Mori

This tomb is the property of…

The amount of people I now realise are fascinated by graveyards makes my own fascinations rather less interesting than I once thought they were… still. I join the ranks of those who puzzle about their place (along with all of their practicalities and their meanings) in the city, who love how they often sit palimpsestic in familiar spaces suddenly rendered strange when you uncover what lies beneath, love how they also provide pockets of green, whether made open parks or retaining their gravestones. I love cities where they are integrated into the fabric like this, a reminder to live life well.

So I could hardly resist the Granary Burying Ground while walking past it in Boston. The grave of Crispus Attucks and four others killed in the Boston Massacre. Paul Revere, Sam Adams and others (where the tourists clustered and I did not).

I found this the most interesting.

Granary Burial Ground

‘This tomb is the property of Elizabeth Hickling and Mary Hooten heirs of Deac. John Lee’. A classical obelisk, and a startling conception of property ownership beyond life itself. A proclamation even. You can’t take it with you, but I suppose you can try to claim it with the presence of your bones. I also note they were not daughters, sisters, wives, mothers but only heirs.

No one else seemed to find this startling.

It made me wonder whether their lives were really self-defined by property and its relations. How cramped and sterile, how tragic, yet how little there would be to mourn. If it were true.

I confess I was also rather amazed at the memento mori on most of the gravestones (apart from the classical obelisks like the one above, and a handful of fat angels). Rarely found by me in English (or Irish) graveyards, I have only ever seen this abundance in Valleta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral, belonging to the Templars. The knights had dedicated themselves to ‘protecting’ Christendom and fighting the Moors (for pillage and plunder), I am wondering if it is this battle against the fierce ‘other’ they held in common with the protestants of Boston on their lands conquered and taken by force. Pure speculation.

Granary Burial Ground

Granary Burial Ground

Granary Burial Ground

Preoccupations with property, preoccupations with death. There is always such a very different glimpse into social relations that the ceremonies and geographies of death clarify. Like the importance of property ownership. Like the value of life.

Granary Burial Ground

Children become persons at the age of 6, men and women after 12. Blacks are buried more cheaply than whites. I have not yet read Chloe Spear’s narrative, but I have read Phillis Wheatley (the surname of the man who believed he owned her).

I suppose the reduced rates reflect the fact that they were only to be buried with those who claimed ownership.

I continued my walk to the north end to meet someone, a welcome break from the thousands of geographers and the mad networking of the AAG. Very shortly I saw this, by way of contrast yet also continuity as it was almost Easter.

Easter window

Off to Katie’s neighbourhood, and a walk under the bridge past this haunting graffiti after some pizza, some coffee, some wine…

Walking away from Sullivan Square

For a dinner of pupusas, glorious pupusas that I have not had for years, provided by the vibrant Salvadoran community there that I never knew existed, and flavoured more richly through memories of our time together at CARECEN. And old pictures.

Père Lachaise Cemetery — Aux Morts de la Commune

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:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Daudenarde -- Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871
Daudenarde — Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871

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.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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’:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

This sufraggette among them, Hubertine Auclert:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Some we knew to seek out, like early film-maker and purveyor of wonder, Georges Melies:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

In the vaults — I confess Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno was a surprise:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

We sought out Daumier, though, and found him after much effort.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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

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