Updated: Sep 17, 2020
From "Sundays in the Capital of the Dead"
The French refer to Paris as “la capitale”. The Père Lachaise cemetery is the most famous in Paris and among the most famous in the world. This is why I am calling it the “Capital of the Dead.” What have I been up to there on late-summer Sundays, you might wonder? Were they just ordinary Sundays outings like the one painted by Seurat?
Père Lachaise resembles a grandiose miniature city, a microcosm of Paris itself, replete with large avenues, monumental rond-points, but also quaint cobblestone streets that wind their way up a hill. Unlike Parisians, some of whom can be rude and others riotous, all of the Père Lachaise residents are the most charming figures you’ll come across. Polite to you and to each other, they seem to have all come to accept that they are “in this together”.
My first Sunday there was one of exhilarating deep breathing (no masks required). The residents of Père Lachaise are unmoved by the Covid19 contagion, and those living outside its walls too bothered by it to visit the dead. Who would imagine such life-giving breath among the tombs! There are a million people buried at Père Lachaise, equivalent to a third of those now living in Paris, and also equivalent to the number of those set to die of Covid19 throughout the world before November. There are an additional 100 000 names inscribed outside the walls, on a single 280 meter-long, dark marble memorial plaque. These are the names of Parisians who were killed or lost during the Great War 100 years ago.
The dense presence of the deceased in a single place does weigh on your mind. I had already been thinking about death of late, but not in a morbid kind of way. It so happens that a magnificent friend of mine lost his magnificent mother this past summer. It wasn’t Covid; it was a blitzkrieg of a cancer. It’s as though she just vanished, and I can still see her in front of my eyes with such intensity. I can even converse with her to a certain extent, not through any supernatural powers, but simply because of the vitality of her imprint on me.
Well, my own father died of cancer, and more people die of that disease every single day in this world than will ever die of Covid. You would think such astonishing statistics might merit more attention--maybe even some radical government preventive policies?--but the solution to cancer is a complete overhaul of our economic system. The cost of ineffectual cancer treatment is actually included in the calculation of GNP such that cancerous growth is correlated to economic growth. Ours is an age when commerce has consumed human consciousness.
Then there is my own mother. She is not dead, but dying from Alzheimer’s disease, which is like dying twice: first the mind, then the body. It’s also a bit like a death download application with a slow internet connection. You are watching, waiting for the download to terminate. You don’t really know if you want it to speed up or not. Is it better to live without awareness, or to die fully aware?
It's better to live and to die fully aware, and the worst of all is to lack awareness in living without an irremediable cause such as Alzheimer's disease. That condition seems to me even more pandemic than any other. Where is the collective awareness that our very civilization is speeding ahead on a course for destruction? All feet on the gas pedal, no hands on the steering wheel! Then a virus shows up at the curve, and suddenly here we are swerving out of control.
The process of death begins for us all the day we are born. Life implies death, as death implies life. It would be more appropriate to simply refer to the life process instead of pointing a naughty finger at death. That is what we mean by life on earth. Most people seem busily unaware of this truth, so they might as well be afflicted with dementia. How is it we try to make it through life so oblivious to death when it is the one thing more certain than all else (except taxes)?
These are sincere but not morbid observations. I’m trying to speak of death without a mask. There is a lot of nonsense spread about death by people who know nothing about it, including the religious and scientific clergy. Just as in any other field, the only people who really know about a subject are those who have experience. So the dead are really the only ones truly competent to teach us. This is why I thought Père Lachaise would be a good place to go for some expert advice. Surely I would find someone there to give me a better idea of what to expect. Listening to the living majority these days, you’d think that death was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone, in particular someone of an advanced age. Everything, and I mean everything, is done to prevent it. Well, maybe not death, but death from Covid19 at least. I was curious what the dead would have to say about all this and decided to conduct my interviews in the field--so to speak.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those cracks who communicate directly with the dead. If I were, you would discredit me entirely. Let’s face it, these are times when even imminent, world-renowned scientists--experts in their field--are discredited for holding unconventional views on Covid (i.e. Nobel Prize Prof. Luc Montagier and virologist Didier Raoult). Those who talk with the dead don’t stand a fighting chance.
I should therefore emphasize that the following conversations with selected illustrious residents of Père Lachaise--however real they may sound-- are figments of my imagination.
That I have learned something from them is an interesting conundrum indeed.
My tomb side talks began with Marcel Proust. Not a great start, because with Proust it’s hard to know where to begin. Not only that, he was unwilling to address the subject in less than three volumes. He declared to me:
“At long last, I am no longer A la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Time Lost). I have found that time, and can’t stop finding it. What’s more, this will be the last time that I quote myself from that work. I have been harping on it for too long, and it is driving many of my fellow Père Lachaise residents out of their graves.”
He pointed two rows down at a sepulture door hanging wide open, than began his ultimate recitation:
« Quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses; seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.”
When nothing subsists from an ancient past, after the death of beings and the destruction of things”....oh, never mind. Here is my own super-compressed translation of Proust from an Anglo-American mindset: Fragrance and flavor outlast everything else. A minute droplet alone bears within itself an immense edifice of memory. Well, the part about the droplet had nothing to do with the viral DNA present in our nasal exhalations, but I couldn’t help but think of that.
Farewell Proust. You are far too subtle for our day and age.
Moving on to the dead poets, I came across Paul Eluard on the farthest eastern corner of the cemetery. In regard to Covid, he insisted that the subject was “give me liberty or give me death” and reminded me that he had already said all he wanted to say on matters of freedom.
“Even though my words were carved into a metal chair at the Palais Royal on which countless persons have sat, nobody seemed to read or take heed.” he lamented.
Here are those words, the final ones of his elegiac poem:
“Et par le pouvoir d’un mot (and by the power of a word)
Je recommence ma vie (I start my life over again)
Je suis né pour te connaître (I am born to know you)
Pour te nommer (to name you)
Doing my best to reassure him and myself, I mused:
"Paul, I do believe that your hymn to liberty will again come to life once liberty has all but been stomped out. It is the near absolute deprivation of something that calls it forth once again as the most important thing to be regained."
Many of Eluard’s poems were set to music by French composer Francis Poulenc. As a violinist and classical music lover, I wanted to pay Poulenc a visit along with several other composers. Born and buried in Paris, you can’t get more parisian than Poulenc.
This was my conversation starter:
“I must say, as dead as you are, your music continues to offer a particular quality of freshness and originality and a surprising mix of piety and frivolity. I often listen to your concerto for 2 pianos.”
“It’s nice of you to say so. But I’m really not that dead. What I mean is that my music expresses, now as before, how I experienced the poetry of living, of being joyful or melancholy, and my own particular way of hoping, praying, and believing. Is there really anything else to me that can live on? Oh, I used to be so concerned about being remembered by posterity, but now I’m truly resting in peace. I died of a heart attack when I was only 64, you know?”
“Well, these days, more people die of heart disease every month than the cumulative Covid pandemic death toll, but only Covid causes panic.”
“The living seem to be running around as if hoping for a heart attack, while covering their nose and mouth to protect themselves from an invisible invader. Given such ambiguous behavior, it’s hard to know what to wish for them,.”
“Maybe we can wish them a Poulenc melody for their funeral?” I offer.
“Certainly not! Stick to Bach for that!” he insisted. It is indeed true that only Bach’s music was performed at Poulenc’s funeral.
Georges Bizet, next on my stroll, was amused to have my visit. Having died in 1875 of an unidentified acute respiratory disease, he mocked:
“In those days they had no idea, but at least today they would know it’s Covid.”
He went on to muse over his musical contributions.
“You know, I never imagined such success for Carmen. But she too caught Covid and this year marks the longest period since WWII that Carmen has not been performed live.”
“But it’s still on the Paris Opera’s programme this year...with no sneezing allowed,” I reminded him.
“Well, I certainly did compose works of lesser interest and many of them seem so frivolous in retrospect. You cannot imagine how much time I have spent decomposing!”
I moved on to visit Fréderic Chopin, who had sufficiently gotten over his melancholy to exclaim:
“Take heart! Death is but a prelude!”
He still remained troubled that his body was buried in Père Lachaise while his heart was sitting preserved in a bocal of cognac in Warsaw.
“Well, I always felt that my heart was somehow outside of myself, but surely I could have been spared such a separation at death!” he lamented. He seemed to have forgotten that he was the one to have requested the removal of his heart, terrified as he was at the prospect of being accidentally buried alive. There was no point in reminding him. Rather, I reflected:
“You know, Fréderic, you are where your music is heard, and in that place remain entirely present. You are neither here nor in Warsaw, but entirely in my head.”
Well, the dead Chopin ended up in two places, but so also did the renowned chef of Paris’ emblematic restaurant, Le Grand Véfour. Raymond Oliver has two tombs in Père Lachaise, and I apparently found the wrong one, which is to say the one where he used to be buried. Never mind the boney details, the point here is that you don’t have to be at the right tomb to commune!
“Monsieur Oliver, I arrived in Paris for the first time the same year you died. And your TV show, L’art et magie de la cuisine no longer airs, of course. It doesn’t seem fair that other great artists are remembered longer because their legacy can still be experienced by posterity. A chef’s dinner can never be experienced again.”
“Do not feel sorry for me! We chefs have something important to teach about life and death. However ephemeral, our painstaking creations focus your attention on the sublime present moment. There is no life outside of this moment, only memories of the past or anticipation of the future. Life is now, in this moment, so don’t tarry on my tomb and don’t fuss over old bones no matter how sacred someone tries to make them!”
With that, I scurried off to visit another chef, André Viard, author of the 1817 best-seller La Cuisine Royale. I had a peculiar question to ask him.
“Monsieur Viard, I read that you installed your tomb here a year before your death, and that you came to visit it every day. What was that all about?”
“Well, I didn’t want to just jump into a tomb with no prior preparation, you know! After a year of practice, I became well accustomed to the idea of existing outside of my body. I could imagine my body being consumed by worms, but I was not that body.”
“So your death was well prepared and executed, just like a fine dinner!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, it was. I even gave specific instructions for my 25 chosen friends to gather together not at the grave, but at a fine table that I ordered in advance for them.”
“That was a fine thing to do.”
“It was a new challenge for me to occupy the kitchen and the grave at the same time (as we say in French, être au four et au moulin).”
Bells from afar were ringing to signal the closing of the cemetery. For whom did they toll? With the sinuous paths through a labyrinth of tombs, I was not sure how to find my way out. I seemed to be the only one lingering, no doubt lost in my thoughts while others hustled to the gates. There was nobody left to help me….nobody but the dead, that is.
“Excuse me, but how do I get out of here?” I addressed myself to the nearest tomb, a certain Lemoine.
“This is the most sought-after cemetery in the world. Why would you want out? Did you not strive your entire life to secure your place here? You’re a big success! On top of that, the dead can lead you closer to life. Why would you wish to return to the living who lead you closer to death?”
“You heard the bell. I’m not allowed to stay, you know that. I’m still on the side of the living.”
“Well do come back soon. As long as you know nothing about death, you know nothing about life.”
Such were the words whispered to me from illustrious tombs on my first Sunday in the Capital of the Dead. I will return, as I still have much to learn.
Monuments to the dead and associated curiosities were worth the walk, but the greatest beauty of all was to be found in the trees that did not talk. Some of their leaves, scorched by the September heat, announced a premature fall. They suddenly detached and drifted down to cover the tombs. Where man enshrines death, the trees are only concerned with the constant flux of life.
There is a significance--a sacredness if you prefer--to our unique life experience, in whatever way it may end. Thanks to our death, we are entirely involved in an ongoing process of life, the product of which is more fantastic than anything we can begin to fathom.
The above entry is an excerpt from "Sundays in the Capital of the Dead", a part of my upcoming book entitled "Corona Confessions"
See my complete Père Lachaise photo album here.