Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris sadly remains one of the few places in the world where you can view barely post-pubescent hipsters vandalising trees in memory of a musician none of them could possibly be old enough to appreciate.
So by all means visit Jim Morrison’s messy, teenage tourist draw, but if you limit your visit to Père Lachaise to observing sophomoric pretension in the wild then you’re cheating yourself. There are literally hundreds of other little interactions between the living and dead in this intricate archive of the history of Paris and the people who died here:
Morrison’s shrine was more interesting years ago when there was a concrete bust on which you could read the musings of fans of The Doors who apparently express themselves most genuinely in verbatim excerpts of their lyrics. That’s been since stolen, replaced, and stolen but that’s okay because there are still walls, a nearby tree and the tombstones of others’ loved ones on which to read “see you on the other side, Jim” and “Can you show me the way to the next whiskey bar” as many times as you fancy.
As deliberately unoriginal as is the vandalism by Jim Morrison’s solemn body of mourners, it’s still somehow an improvement over the pensées obscuring the view of Oscar Wilde’s predictably fabulous memorial. A monument which looks, incidentally, much more jolly than a tombstone and more like it ought be to over the entrance to a very happening nightclub that doesn’t open until none-of-your-business. Nowadays Wilde’s tomb is surrounded by a high plexiglass wall so there’s relatively little tagging directly on the marble. In fact, the wall was erected less to discourage tagging as kissing because, apparently, the tremendous amount of lipstick residue built up by the cult tradition of embracing this particular tomb was causing the marble to decay. No, I don’t believe that either.
So if you want to leave your notions for others to read you’ll need to tape them to the plexiglass or carve them into it. Please give this a little thought, though, and maybe read some of the snippets of poetry and free-form twaddle left by others and ask yourself if you really, really have something to say that merits a reading by those paying their respects to one of the greatest masters of the English language from the last 100 years.
Practice instead the modest discretion of visitors to the grave of Edith Piaf. If they leave anything at all it’s a simple and biodegradable rose. If you do that then thank you because a fresh rose on the tomb of the singular talent behind La Vie en Rose communicates a far more beautiful and durable message to those who follow than, say, vandalising her headstone.
If you must leave a written thought for Edith do what others do and put it in an envelope and leave it at her feet or between her grave and that of her daughter, Marcelle, who died at the age of two. She’ll get to it. Apparently these are largely love letters or requests for advice from people who clearly don’t know a lot about Edith Piaf and her infamously poor judgement.
The tomb of Victor Noir enjoys a different sort of interaction altogether with visitors who mostly have no idea who he is. It turns out that he wasn’t really anyone, particularly, and his single claim to any sort of fame came at literally the last moment of his life, shot to death by a nephew of Napoleon I when the common journalist objected to the prince treating him as a prince would a common journalist.
His murder became a flashpoint for republican sensibilities in France and among reformers his funeral became the event at which everyone claimed to have been. Consequently, his monument at Père Lachaise is more of a memorial of an injustice and is a particularly realistic representation of Noir as he fell, sprawled on his back, his hat at his side and, for whatever reason, a noticeable erection. Entirely unrelated to anything to do with republicanism or egalitarianism or justice or even Victor Noir, the custom has developed among women hoping for husbands or fertility to offer him a flower, possibly give him a kiss but above all give his junk a rub. The action that Noir’s seen since his death has worn that not insignificant bit of the bronze statue to a shiny finish.
More moving is the inescapably one-sided gestures offered by the living to the less famous deceased. Père Lachaise itself is in a very real way a city of the dead. There are streets with names and in a manner of speaking addresses. It’s a crowded development and each unit intrudes onto the property-line of the next but no two are the same and they have vastly differing ages and states of repair and people who remember them.
The fresh flowers and cards and, in some heartbreaking cases, toys, are appreciably more meaningful and, obviously, tasteful, than the desecration reserved for the famous. The decaying flowers and cracked headstones and rotted bibles are more meaningful still. It’s all touching and beautiful and I urge you to go and respectfully appreciate Père Lachaise Cemetary and the antics of those who don’t.