On Wednesday I took a trip to the largest cemetery within the city of Paris. The place stretches over 110 acres and contains over a million people including statesmen, artists, writers, cultural icons, and lesser-known Parisians who simply wanted to be interred among the greats. There are family crypts that contain the remains of generation upon generation, but new plots (read: repurposed old ones) can be bought for temporary internment for 10, 30, or 50 years. That means A LOT of people. I was there to pay homage to some of my favorite notable Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, and Francophiles.
Immediately upon stepping inside the gate, I bought a map and pulled out my list of must-sees. After circling their locations, I took off up the hill.
- Jean de Brunhoff: author of the Babar series of children’s books.
- Eugene Delacroix: painter, especially known for Liberty Leading the People (see it here)
- Maria Callas: opera singer, renowned as one of the most important of the 21st century. She was the definition of diva.
- Isadora Duncan (this one’s for you, Mom): dancer, choreographer, and dance innovator, considered by many to be the originator of modern dance. I sat with her for a little while and looked at the kisses and messages for her.
- Oscar Wilde: novelist, poet, playwright. Wilde enthusiasts made their pilgrimage here to leave tokens, flowers, messages, or a kiss in red lipstick on the tomb, but nearly a century of appreciation damaged the sculpture. No matter, the faithful still kiss the glass enclosure.
- Sarah Bernhardt: stage actress and one of the pioneering actresses of early film.
- Marcel Marceau: mime, apparently also the originator of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
- Victor Schoelcher: abolitionist
- Pierre André Latreille: zoologist, taxonomist, entomologist. He was imprisoned during the French Revolution for refusing to say an oath of allegiance to the state, but discovered a new species of beetle that was living inside the prison, Necrobia ruficollis. He informed a prison doctor, who was impressed, and arranged to have Latreille freed. All of his cellmates were dead within a month, but Latreille went on to become the head of the French Academy of Sciences. My favorite of his accomplishments (though small relative to others) is naming and classifying the rough woodlouse, Porcellio scaber, a type of what is commonly called the “roly-poly.”
- Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin): playwright and actor, a master of comedy. buried next to…
- Jean de la Fontaine : writer, most notably of fairy tales and fables
- Gertrude Stein: modernist author, editor, art collector. The pebbles and stones are a sort of calling card of the visitors who want to pay their respects.
- Edith Piaf: singer
- Jim Morrison: musician, singer of The Doors. His grave is barricaded off, but people still leave all kinds of things in memoriam, including messages and drawings all over a nearby tree. One man comes every morning with a beer, drinks half, and leaves the rest for The Lizard King.
- Chopin: composer
- Dominique Vivant (Denon): artist, diplomat, writer, part of Bonaparte’s company of archaeologist during the French expedition to Egypt, the first director of the Louvre museum. Someone had tucked a white carnation into the statue’s hand.
- One grave I was not able to find was that of Georges Cuvier, founder of paleontology and pioneer of comparative anatomy. I got very close, but couldn’t find the name.
- Heloise D’Argenteuil: 12th century nun and scholar, arguably the best-educated woman of her time, who is buried alongside her eternal love…
- Peter Abelard: theologian and philosopher. Their story is one of the most renowned romances of all time. They are famous for their beautiful love letters, as well as for the tragedies that befell them. Near where Notre Dame cathedral stands today, Heloise lived with her uncle, Fulbert. Abelard heard of her intellect and brilliance and arranged to tutor her himself, eventually under Fulbert’s roof. The pair became lovers, but when Fulbert found out he tried to separate them. This did nothing to prevent their love, but when Heloise bore Abelard’s son, Astrolabe (after the scientific instrument), Abelard tried to arrange a marriage. When Fulbert announced this publicly, Heloise fled to a convent. Believing Abelard had abandoned his new bride and cast her away, Fulbert had Abelard attacked and castrated. Many of their letters survive, both from before their affair and many years after, a beautiful record of their love as well as of their remarkable intellectual pursuits. It is a tradition for the lovelorn to leave letters here in hopes of finding an equally glorious (but hopefully less tumultuous) affair.
I stepped out of the gate as it began to drizzle again, boarded the metro, and sped off for a quick peek at the Musée de l’Orangerie…