Ever wanted to know what real stardom looks like? Look no further than Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It’s the same cemetery where celebrities like Molière, Edith Piaf, Proust, Beckett lie buried. The cemetery basically has who’s who from the world of art and literature. It was the penultimate day of our Paris trip and paucity of time forced us to choose either between a trip to the Catacombs or a walk to Père-Lachaise. The congregation of celebs at one place was a temptation difficult to resist.
Before me and my wife paid a visit to the cemetery, we had no clue that Jim Morrison too lay buried there but we were definitely aware of the presence of tombs of stalwarts like Molière, Guy de Maupassant and Frédéric Chopin. It was a balmy Sunday afternoon reminiscence of the stillness of time that one often encounters in films of Richard Linklater and Paweł Pawlikowski. The first thing that made us take notice of the cemetery were its well carved tombstones that lay in perfect manicured fashion. (This is a norm in any European or North American country). The scattered autumn leaves gave an aura that this is a place that’s not much visited by people but by those who rejoice in silence. Though I visited the cemetery during autumn, it is said that the cemetery assumes a different ethos at different seasons of the year. While it’s mysterious during the winter, during autumns it’s full of colors and the mood turns romantic during spring time.
Locating the tombs of public figures who virtually changed the world with their work amidst 70000 tombstones is a daunting task, so the administration has divided the cemetery into 97 divisions with each division holding more than 700 gravestones. Père-Lachaise cemetery has so many known personalities buried that to see their individual tomb might take days. A day visit to the cemetery is similar to spending a day at Louvre. It’s a surreal feeling when you see Chopin and Beckett buried in close proximity and then again to witness names of Beauvoir and Sartre engraved on the same tomb is something that forces you to spend more minutes than required in front of their tomb. My visit to Père-Lachaise cemetery also helped me teach what stardom actually means and formulate my own parameters to calculate the intangible glory and fame attached to a person. One name that stands tall over all others at the cemetery is Jim Morrison, American rock legend. It was only after seeing the tomb of Jim Morrison, I could comprehend the true meaning of stardom. When we reached the cemetery we had no clue that Jim Morrison’s tomb remains the most visited tomb for visitors. After having seen tombs of other known figures, we scheduled to keep Jim’s for the last and we certainly had no clue what awaited us.
It’s an arduous task to locate the tomb of Jim Morrison while at Père-Lachaise. Armed with the map of the cemetery, we were confident that it wouldn’t take much time locating the grave of the musical genius. But Division 6 (where he is buried) proved elusive. To those who intend to visit Père-Lachaise, it is essential to know that the Divisions at the cemetery are not in order and thus there is every possibility that Division 6 could be next to Division 67 or Division 18 in the proximity of Division 48. And just as we were wondering how to locate the exact place, we saw a bunch of hippies who had come there as visitors. A sixth sense echoed that it might be a good idea to follow them and all it took was a fifteen-minute walk on the cobblestone path to reach the tomb of Jim Morrison. And we simply were not prepared for what we saw next – Jim’s tomb was barricaded. There were people sitting close to the barricades crying and lighting scented candles. Fresh flowers, especially roses, gave an impression that this is one tomb that is never short of visitors. The adventurous ones had jumped the fences to have a closer look of the tomb and there was the smell of cannabis all around. Another site near his tomb that catches your immediate attention is a tree which is dotted with chewing gum. Visitors to his grave often stick chewing gum on a nearby tree as a sign of independence and Jim’s inherent nature of being a non-conformist. It was a reminder that Jim’s tomb is the most popular of the lot and fifty years after his death he continues to reign supreme. On the popularity scale, Oscar Wilde’s tomb comes a distant second.
It is believed that a few weeks before his death in 1971, Jim Morrison had visited Père-Lachaise and spent hours seeing the tombs of important personalities buried there. The rock star legend had gone there specially to see the tomb of Oscar Wilde and it was then that he had expressed his desire to be buried at the cemetery in close proximity to the grave Oscar Wilde.
Built in 1804, Père-Lachaise does not figure in the itinerary of average travellers to Paris. One gets to know of its importance only after someone has spent a few days in the city. A visit to the cemetery harks you back to an era when innovation and intelligence ruled. To those who prefer off the beaten path, Père-Lachaise cemetery is a must visit.
Personalities buried at Père-Lachaise cemetery