About five years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning in Uppsala, Sweden, I walked through a park-like cemetery and from a distance watched an older woman tend to the grave of her recently deceased husband. It is one of those moments that’s burned into my memory for being both terribly sad and incredibly beautiful. That morning, and through a few other visits to European cemeteries over the years, I have come to learn that some of the most beautiful parks in many foreign cities are in fact their graveyards.
While in Paris back in March, I made a two trips to cemeteries within the city. The first was a morning visit to the Montparnasse Cemetery in the same neighbourhood as my hotel.
On this spectacular spring morning, there were only a few people here – most were cutting through as they completed errands or were on their way to work. Their daily routine was, for me, an indulgence.
The artistry included in some of the burial plots stopped me in my tracks, and between my limited French and my phone’s translation app, pulled me in to learn about those buried here.
Here in Montparnasse, there are a number of very famous people buried. Close to the entry gates on the north end of the cemetery were the tombs of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett.
After returning to Paris for the last few days of our France trip, my wife and I ventured out to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest urban cemetery in Paris. Much like in Montparnasse, it is an exceptionally beautiful setting.
Situated on a steep hill, this cemetery’s paths are twisted and meander off in many directions, making a stroll through here an adventure in discovery.
The variety and organization of the tombstones is a visual cacophony. Paths among and between the tombs start and stop with no particular pattern. Where Montparnasse was organized and structured, the charm of Père Lachaise is in its relative disorganization.
Like Montparnasse, there are many famous individuals buried here, including Edith Piaf Chopin and Molière. The burial plot that receives the most attention is that of Jim Morrison.
For me, the most impactful tomb was one of a 21 year old who was killed in the 2015 terrorist attack less than a kilometre away at the Batalcan Theatre. On her tombstone were pictures of her and words remembering a life taken senselessly and far too early. Maybe it was the grey and chill of the day, perhaps it was the proximity to those terrible events, but it touched me unexpectedly.
Perhaps it seems a touch perverse or even macabre to spend a few hours wandering through cemeteries while on vacation. Maybe the pull for me comes from my attraction to the melancholy in art, something in such abundance in Père Lachaise and Montparnasse. For me, both of these places are historical, tell so many stories, and exist in the intersection of beauty and sadness. I wouldn’t have missed visiting these two places for anything.