Life Lessons in Père Lachaise Cemetery
An American novelist suffering from writer’s block finds literary inspiration among dead luminaries and living patrons in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery.
Not only tourists in search of Jim Morrison’s grave frequent Père Lachaise, you see. Parisians adore their largest cemetery and a stroll along its cobblestone alleys is as popular a local pastime as any.
JIM LINWOOD / FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/BRIGHTON/ 648894779
For the past three and a half years, I’ve lived a 10 minute walk from Père Lachaise, the famed Parisian cemetery that’s home to many historic luminaries—everyone from Abelard to Chopin, Edith Piaf to Marcel Proust.
Despite my close proximity to the Père Lachaise cemetery, picking up the Parisian affection for the place didn’t come naturally. Not only tourists in search of Jim Morrison’s grave frequent Père Lachaise, you see. Parisians adore their largest cemetery and a stroll along its cobblestone alleys is as popular a local pastime as any.
It took me some time to understand the appeal. Tracking down rock stars’ headstones seemed less bizarre than having dates amongst the dead.
Then one day, just as late summer was giving way to early fall, I found myself inextricably drawn to Père Lachaise. I was wrestling with a section of my first novel. Not surprisingly, stage fright consumed me and I couldn’t finish. Frustrated, I made a spontaneous trek to Père Lachaise to clear my mind. Though it’d never been a destination I sought before, it somehow seemed fitting to seek solace there as I searched for closure.
I entered off Rue du Repos (literally ‘Street of Rest’) rather than the main entrance, as this was the side closest to my apartment. I roamed aimlessly for a while until I climbed up the steps toward the crematorium. I decided to sit for a spell.
The sun shone bright, heat warming my skin. On the patch of grass in front of me, people engaged in the type of casual activities that had heretofore perplexed me in this setting: picnicking on blankets, couples sneaking kisses at every turn.
With the clear view over the city, and trees rising up between the hard stones, I had to admit I began to see the charm.
What was the balance here, I wondered, when surrounded by so many tombs? The right etiquette, a show of proper respect?
I started scratching out notes in my journal, though I can’t say I was focused. When two older women in their 60s sat down next to me, I knew I should just forget my preoccupation with the book for the moment.
The women proceeded to have a very French conversation—a list of complaints despite the beautiful day. A late reimbursement from Social Security for one; how the sun was hurting her eyes for the other.
They began discussing the case of Marianne, a woman it seemed who had just that week been attacked in the cemetery.
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