by George V. Neville-Neil
In 1998, I quit my job as a manager in a software firm and decided to bounce around Europe, a place I’d lived and worked in, but never really visited. I made my entrance to Europe through London, where I visited the long-standing (since 1886) anarchist bookstore run by Freedom Press.
Contrary to popular belief, anarchists are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. While checking out the small, well-kept shop, I struck up a conversation with Kevin, who was working there. He was kind enough to point me to some works that could further my learning, including Anarchist Portraits by Paul Avrich. It had also been recommended by a friend.
In all of the historical—and many of the theoretical—works were references to past events I had never heard of. The one that most struck a chord with me was the Paris Commune of 1871.
The short version of the story is that in 1870, France was stupid enough to attack their much better armed Prussian neighbors to the east. They got walloped. The French government fled Paris. The people of Paris, who had declared revolution many times before (1789 and 1848 being the best-known examples), declared a commune and barricaded the city. Life was reorganized along anarcho-communist lines: each person contributed what he could and consumed what was necessary. The defense of Paris began.
The Prussians, of course, wanted someone to surrender to them. However, the Commune was not a government, as 19th-century Europeans understood it. The Commune held out until the 21st-28th of May, when the Prussians—acting with the consent and aid of the French government-in-exile—massacred the people of the Commune. They killed 3,000 in the actual battle and over 20,000 in executions and revenge murders. This was commemorated, so my books said, by a marker in Père Lachaise Cemetery. This I had to see.
I arrived in Paris on a cold, dark February afternoon. I had a few hours to kill before my train to Barcelona. I took the Metro directly to the Père Lachaise stop.
Paris in February is not known for its beauty. As I ascended the steps from the Metro, I was greeted by a cold gray sky. The neighborhood around Père Lachaise was then an Arabic immigrant community. Mingled with the usual Parisian smells of car exhaust, urine, dog shit, and fresh bread were less familiar odors of Arabic cooking. If it’s always an experience leaving a Metro stop, this one was doubly so.
The stop nearest the graveyard was in the middle of a large traffic island, so I had to walk through traffic to get to the entrance of the cemetery. This particular entrance was not the main one, which stood 100 yards further along at the westernmost part of the cemetery.
I climbed the small set of stairs and entered the cemetery proper. Immediately I noticed a map, which was good, as I didn’t want to ask, “Where are the Communards buried?” in my limited French. The Communards themselves didn’t seem to be on the map, but I noticed that the cemetery was divided into zones, such as those for scientists, philosophers, and political figures. I figured that the latter was my goal. It was, of course, clear across the cemetery. To compound my problems, the cemetery was only open for another hour. With a train to catch, I didn’t want to be locked in: a very real possibility, since the cemetery had a high fence around it.
The cemetery itself was quite large, especially for a city as physically small as Paris. Père Lachaise is a ½-mile on each side. Each internal cobblestone roadway and dirt path was named or numbered. This organization strikes me as Napoleonic, Napoleon being the inventor of the now-infamous French bureaucracy.
As I walked the cobblestone Avenue Circular, it surprised me that the tombs were all aboveground. Paris, thanks to the River Seine, has a high water table. Many of the tombs and monuments were quite ornate. Some were beautiful. Angels predominated as the type of sculpture. Beautifully sculpted female faces smiled down on the dearly departed. The French not only brought fresh flowers to the dead, but also some glazed ceramic versions of flowers. Those they left on or near the tombs as one would leave flowers. Even more ornate were the white stone plaques, like miniature headstones, set atop the monuments with personal messages to the deceased. These ranged in size from 8×10 to 12×16 inches. They carried messages such as “To our beloved son,” “Our darling mother,” “Our brave soldier,” etc.
It took me about 20 minutes to cross the cemetery. I was prepared for quite a search. I mean, who cares about a bunch of long-dead anarchists? Thankfully, I was wrong. The marker wasn’t just a small thing in the ground. On the east wall of the cemetery itself, the marker was three feet high by five feet wide and said “Paris Communards 1871.” Even more amazing, the area was obviously well tended. There were a large number of bouquets all around it. I was awestruck. Someone—many people, in fact—not only remembered, but cared enough to visit. Even though I was alone, I realized I was with people I might know and like if I met them in person.
I took a few photos and decided I had time to look around more. As I turned around, I saw what I had not noticed on the map. Immediately across the Avenue Circulaire from the Communards were all the Monuments aux Deportées.
These sculptures commemorated all those killed by the Nazis and the Vichy government during World War II. Large, beautifully simple (in the style of modern sculpture) monuments were engraved with the names “Auschwitz,” “Birkenau,” and “Belsen.” Each commemorated hundreds of thousands of people killed.
These were not adorned with flowers but instead, in the style of Jewish visitors to cemeteries, had small stones left on them. The monuments were all covered with many stones. I do not know the origin of this custom, being an atheist and only culturally Jewish, but I knew what it meant: “We were here.”
The combination of the memorials proved too much for me. I found tears running down my face. Tears can mean many things; in this case, they were angry tears, wept in frustration at the stupidity of my race, the human race. I sat down and just looked at the stones, then walked back to read them all one more time.
It was getting late, so I found the nearest exit, the Porte de la Reunion. I went to find some paper to write on, some food to eat, and a Metro back to my night train to Barcelona.
My second trip to Père Lachaise was a little different. I gave myself plenty of time, arriving at 10:30 a.m. I brought two flowers—yellow roses, which the French call “Rose Texas.” I find that funny. The Metro stop was the same; the cemetery was the same. Thankfully, the weather was a bit nicer, since it was September.
I placed one rose sticking out from behind the plaque for the Communards, a popular place to leave single flowers. The other went on the Auschwitz memorial, not because I know anyone who was killed there—my family had mostly immigrated to the United States before the First World War—but because it’s the name I always think of when I think of concentration camps. I guess that’s branding for you.
Angry tears still overwhelmed me.
It has been 17 years since I wrote about my visits to Père Lachaise. While I visited Paris several times in the interim, I had not returned to the cemetery. In August of 2015, I was again visiting a close friend in Paris, and, as usual, he and I spent many hours walking around the city.
Paris is a wonderful city to walk in. When you tire, there are cafes in which to sit and drink coffee. When you want to go home, you can always hope the Metro. We walked and talked about our usual topics: our lives, our loves, politics, and the state of the world. It was early August, but not too hot for a long stroll, but by noon we knew that it was time to sit some where shaded and take lunch.
After lunch, he asked if I’d like to visit Père Lachaise again, knowing about my previous pilgrimage there and my feelings about the Commune. He rarely, if ever, visited the cemetery and asked one of the workers where to find the plaque.
We walked one of the long walks along the edge of the cemetery and returned to the political wing of Père Lachaise. There were still bouquets and flowers at the Commune’s plaque and at the monuments to the dead of previous wars.
What surprised me this time was that there were several new monuments. The first I noticed was for the genocide in Rwanda. While that event had occurred before my first visit, the monument had not yet been erected. As I looked around, I saw other monuments to those moments in the news where we occasionally pause and reflect upon our brutality. I guess I should not have been surprised. Humanity’s violence, of course, has not abated and so there will always be new monuments in this area, one for each new, known, horrific act of man upon man. Who knows what I’ll find when I return again?
George Neville-Neil is a quiet Irish boy trapped in the body of a Jewish anarchist. He’s written about finding his landlord dead, getting tested for AIDS, cruising, and anarchy in Père Lachaise for Morbid Curiosity magazine and appeared in Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. This essay initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.