Saturday, March 22, 2008
Most of our trip to Paris was marked by cold temperatures, gray skies, and pouring rain. On a rare sunny morning, Daiku and I decided to head to the Père Lachaise cemetery, a major attraction that neither of us had visited before. Like many old cemeteries, the Père Lachaise is strangely vibrant, speaking to life much more than to death. It's a lovely place for reflection, and it turned out to have been one of my favorite parts of our trip, so I thought I would share some images with you. We thought we would take a brisk walk through the place, but ended up spending over 2 hours meandering through a much larger space than imagined (and yet we saw only a small fraction)! For more photos, check out my Père Lachaise set on Flickr.
What I love about this place is its radical democracy- the most prominent and the most anonymous people, from all religions and nationalities, lie side by side. You see grand shrines and small headstones with their lettering worn down after hundreds of years. French families residing in Paris for generations share space with immigrants, refugees, and travelers.
In addition, the cemetery has special meaning for leftists, with famous radicals buried there, from those killed in the Paris Commune to members of the Communist Party.
It's easy to forget that you are in a major urban area until you come up to a hill that gives you a clear view of the surrounding city.
Considering that it's the most famous and most visited cemetery in the world, we saw precious few people there during our visit. Those we did see all seemed to be overtaken by a sense of calm and contemplation, as were we.
Signs of life everywhere- from bright grass and moss growing on old graves...
... to snails resting on tombstones.
Mausoleums in various states of gentle...
...and not so gentle disrepair.
Everywhere we turned, there was an insistence on recognizing and emphasizing beauty- youth and vitality struggling to triumph over death and decay.
a sense only amplified by the sunshine, long missing before this morning.
Even though we weren't really looking for them, we did see some resting places of famous people, including the painter Delacroix,
the singer Edith Piaf,
and the philosopher Merleau-Ponty. We noticed that we were there 2 days before the 100-year anniversary of his birth (March 14, 1908). I though back sadly at the 2000 presidential debate where G.W. Bush and Al Gore were asked to name their favorite philosophers. Gore answered Merleau-Ponty while Bush, clearly unable to think of a single actual philosopher, named Jesus. It hurts the brain too much to think of what the last 8 years would have been like had we elected a president who could actually think philosophically... so I won't go there right now.
Of course, the feeling of calm was punctuated by poignant reminders of where we were, with monuments to grief and tragedy on both grand levels, like this one of many remembrances of those killed in the Holocaust,
and on deeply and heartrendingly personal levels like this obelisk erected in the early 1800s by a man in order to mark the loss of his two sons and his wife. You can almost sense his sadness as he promises that they are waiting for him.
In an otherwise harried trip, it was really rejuvenating to have this chance to slow down and think about the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the season of rebirth and renewal, and to do it in a place filled with humanity in its simplest and grandest forms.