I have always found death and dying to be one of the more awkward, but inevitable aspects of life. It is a subject to reflect upon, but hopefully not obsess about. Various countries and cultures deal with the interment of their dearly departed differently. There is the “ashes to ashes” approach in Benares, India versus the more “dust to dust” approach of western/european cultures. In Venice the tombs must be above ground, as the water level is notoriously high. In Buenos Aires, commonly referred to as “The Paris of South America”, the vast Recoleta cemetery is filled with tombs which resemble grand neoclassical temples, a style influenced by the city to which it looked for inspiration. Jessica Mitford wrote one of her most famous tomes on “The American Way of Death” and the whole industry revolving around this subject in her adopted country.
Paris’s current style and fashion regarding graves and burial grounds is largely a nineteenth century phenomenon. As centuries passed and the course of history altered, so did these repositories of bodies. The former Cimetière des Innocents became so overcrowded that it literally burst at the seams. This cemetery, in the center of the city, had been accumulating bodies since the 10th century. Twenty-two parishes, many hospitals and the anonymous dead all contributed to a multi-layered accretion reaching over 3 meters high held behind stone retaining walls. As history would have it, the city’s primary food markets of Les Halles were established right alongside. After the calamitous collapse of the wall, the bodies were summarily disinterred and the bones rather artistically arranged in piles in tunnels created by quarrying, repurposed as “The Catacombs”.
So at the end of the 18th century it was decided for health reasons that cemeteries would be banned from Paris proper. Thus started an early nineteenth century exodus to areas which were outside the city limits. The largest and most famous example today is Pere Lachaise cemetery. This began somewhat modestly in 1804 to the east of the city. A rather clever marketing strategy, which involved moving the remains of Moliere to this site, established a rush to be buried in what became the most fashionable final resting spot in Paris. Its residents include many notables from the arts: Ingres, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust and Edith Piaf. The grounds underwent 5 expansions and grew to over 43 hectares. Today there are guided tours and “star maps” sold at the entrance with directions to graves of the notables. Still an active cemetery, albeit with strict rules such as all applicants must have died in the city of Paris. In the first year of the 20th century Oscar Wilde died at L’Hotel on the Rue des Beaux Arts. Witty to the end, he allegedly quipped,”Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”
At roughly the same period the Cimetière de Montmartre was created to the north of the city in a ravine left by a quarry. Not nearly as large as Pere Lachaise, it also contains the remains of many well-known artists: Dumas and Degas, joined in the 20th century by Nijinsky and Truffaut. One of the most actively adored monuments is that of the singer Dalida. Egyptian-born, she moved to Paris and became a mega-star of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Concluding a dramatic life, she committed suicide in 1987. One of her biggest hits presages her demise: “Au dernier rendez-vous, moi je veux mourir sur scene, en chantant jusqu’au bout”…an example of someone who voyaged beyond mere reflection upon death to obsession.