Postcards from Paris

#1 – I See Dead People
I’ve always had a thing for cemeteries. There’s something companionable about them – all those people housed in such close proximity – and mysterious too; lives summed up in a few dry facts, a name, a spouse, some dates. Who were these people? What were they like? It’s the basic human mystery – how well we can know anyone – expressed in its most succinct form. At the same time, each monument is a spur to the imagination; the paucity of information leaves us free to create the life of the person it contains. And though not everyone is equal in death – certainly not in the way they are memorialised – there’s still a certain levelling that takes place; it’s useful, every so often, to remember that the same fate awaits us all.

So, on a wet Sunday morning in Paris, I dragged Ben through Bastille and Belleville to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. (Don’t ever believe me if I tell you that something is “a short walk” away; it took us nearly an hour on foot from our apartment in the Marais.) Here lie the remains of Oscar Wilde, of Marcel Proust, of Piaf and Modigliani and Jim Morrison. The weather enhanced the beauty of the setting: the cobbles were slick with water, the tree trunks black, the few remaining yellow leaves startling against them. The grey crypts were in harmony with the cloudy sky.

There’s a map and a directory inside the gate pointing out all the notable graves. Ben took a photo of it and the two of us walked along the winding lanes, consulting the little screen of his camera every so often to get our bearings. Whereas the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires gets its impact from density – crypt after crypt huddled together, mirroring the apartment buildings outside its walls – what struck me about Père-Lachaise was its seeming endlessness and its municipal feeling. With its lines of trees and its neat street-signs, it felt like another suburb of Paris.

There’s a beautiful sculpture as you walk up the hill representing the passage from life to death. It’s a big blank door; flanking it there are figures lying prone, on their knees, clutching at the wall – anything to postpone the moment when they must pass through. In the doorway there’s a woman and man; they alone stand upright, prepared, she with her hand on his shoulder. We climbed past it and turned right, looking for Jim Morrison. Even on this rainy day – by now our trousers were damp and our shoes and socks soaked through – there were quite a number of people about; couples, mostly, looking out from under their umbrellas for their celebrity goals. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt, except that we were co-operating rather than in competition; people stopped us in the road and asked us the way to Oscar Wilde.

Morrison’s grave is (as you might expect) a little tacky – crudely fenced off, taped with little notes saying things like “Gone but never forgotten”. Proust’s is so modest that we almost walked right past it – a simple granite slab. Wilde’s is the highlight, and the obvious site of pilgrimage. It takes the form of a huge, vaguely Egyptian figure in flight – lifting in death past all human limitations. The whole monument is covered in lipstick kisses. There’s a sign from the authorities requesting respect, but I can’t help hoping that Wilde would enjoy this particular form of tribute – so much more direct and affectionate than flowers; that he would enjoy the exuberant pinks and reds.

On our last day in Paris we ventured down into the Catacombs. They began life as a limestone quarry – as the city grew, its building materials were sourced from the ground on which it stood. We stood in line for an hour behind a particularly obnoxious group of Americans; then we were winding down a spiral staircase, down and down, so tight and round that I got quite dizzy. An extraordinary silence descended: the Americans moved off out of sight and soon this silence seemed to close around us as surely (and as snugly) as the low, narrow tunnels. We were alone, more than fifty metres below ground.

There were numbers and letters – reassuring signs of human intelligence – etched every so often into the walls; otherwise, the tunnel seemed to weave, to turn corners and then double back, quite at random. Perversely, I kept expecting to emerge into daylight; my mind couldn’t seem to accept where I was. It certainly wasn’t built for people standing two metres tall; Ben negotiated it quite nimbly, but I had to walk most of it bent almost double. It was easy to imagine going a bit mad in this environment, and sure enough, we soon came upon a number of miniature castles painstakingly carved out of the limestone walls. I understood the impulse: it’s the obsessive male hobbyist in all of us, run riot underground.

But that was nothing compared to the Catacombs themselves. The entrance to the ossuary is flanked by two columns, painted black with white diamonds; above it is written “Stop – this is the Empire of the Dead.” Entering it, you’re confronted by the extraordinary spectacle of human remains aesthetically arranged. The leg bones are stacked neatly, the joints facing out; these joints form the face of a wall that buckles and curves, like the tunnels themselves. The walls are studded with skulls: they form borders in neat lines, or decorative diamond and cross patterns. (The other bones are piled indiscriminately behind this façade.) I understand that some kind of organisation was required to house the remains of six million people; I can see too that the effort involved implies a certain respect. But I think about the actual work – the people kneeling in the dark, piling bones – and my mind boggles. (Perhaps I understand it too well; it’s precisely the kind of tidy-up busywork that I enjoy.)

The Catacombs were consecrated when Paris’ above-ground cemeteries began to fill up in the eighteenth century. At that time the great bulk of people were buried in mass graves: the only identification given now – the only identification possible – is the name of the cemetery each region of bones was taken from. After a while, I stopped thinking about the aesthetics of the place and started to consider the numbers. In many ways, the Catacombs are the opposite of Père-Lachaise – there are no pretensions to immortality, no famous names. The individual does not exist down there: there are not even whole bodies, but parts sorted according to type. It’s incredibly humbling – perhaps I’d never been so aware of myself as part of a human mass. Eventually we walked clear of the great boneyard and began the slow climb to the surface. The ordinary Paris street seemed changed subtly by our knowledge of what lay beneath. The buildings and pavements and parks were literally founded on the remains of those who’d gone before.