I picked this up because I kept seeing it referenced in the bibliographies of books on cemetery history. The Space of Death is heavy of the theory of cemeteries. Chapters are called “The Vegetal Setting of Death” and “Functionalism and Death,” but for the most part, it isn’t a dry textbook. I’m not sure if that can be attributed to the author or the translator.
Because it was originally written in French, French cemeteries and their places in French history predominate. Which is fascinating, if you’re curious about the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents or Pere Lachaise. It went over the French Revolution and the cycles of execution in such detail that I skipped ahead.
Still, if you have the patience for it, the book is full of material I’ve read nowhere else. For instance, early Christians were buried nude inside their winding sheets. Churchmen were the first to be buried in their clothes “…no doubt believing it to be more decent.” (Did I mention the author’s sense of humor?) In the 17th and 18th centuries, monuments in churches ceased to be three dimensional and instead backed against the wall, forcing viewers to stand and look at them from the front, like theater tableaux. Before 1920, rural villages of France had only three approved subjects for public art: the fountain, the crucifix, and the virgin. Only after World War I did memorials to the dead become acceptable.
Overall, this remarkable book was very worth tracking down. I got my copy of ebay, but it’s also for sale on Amazon.
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.
Communard Memorial photographed by George Neville-Neil
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.
Auschwitz Memorial photographed by George Neville-Neil
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.
I own many, many cemetery books. This is the most beautiful of all of them.
Mark Ballogg’s photography is a revelation. The range of tones and the precision of focus in his pictures is breathtaking, vertigo-inducing, and gives you a sense that his camera sees so much more incisively than you ever could, even if you were standing right there beside it. These are photos to be studied, to be treasured.
The book opens with a dirty, broken styrofoam crucifix lying amidst some weeds beneath a bouquet of silk roses. I’ve never seen life and death captured so well in a photograph. The sense of time passing, of things dissolving, continues in the photo from Avenue Eugene Delacroix, where the faces of the family have melted away, leaving ghosts in stone behind.
Now and then Ballogg pulls back to give a larger view of the cemetery. Its tombs stand side by side like houses along a street, but there are no people here, no wildlife — not even a leaf on a tree, in some cases. Life has come and gone in some of these images, leaving only the photographer behind to capture what remains.
Avenue Eugene Delacroix photo by Mark Ballogg. I apologize for the quality of my scan.
One of my favorite photos is taken through the cross cut into the heavy iron door of the Morel family tomb. Two stained marble faces stare out of the arms of the cross, while below, a cherub clasps its hands together. I really like the sense of the tomb’s denizens returning my curiosity.
Ballogg is an architectural photographer, so the details of the stonework often draw his eye. The most spectacular photograph is taken on the Avenue Circulaire. It captures the cemetery at its most exuberant: full of solid tombs, filigree metal doors, an obelisk, a truncated column, a muse laying a palm, and a bearded life-sized duelist with broken sword upraised. I don’t know how you could look at that photograph and not want to travel to Paris to see it in person.
If I am so blown away by the photography, why have I only given the book 4 stars? Unfortunately, the text does not measure up to quality of the images.
The introductory essay by Michael A. Weinstein is adequate, despite wallowing unnecessarily in academic artspeak. For instance, “It is only by looking into a photographic print made by a masterful modernist that one is able to experience it completely.” Well, duh. It’s a two-dimensional object. How else could you experience it? Still, I do like Weinstein’s analogy that a well-composed photograph is like a lyric poem, something to be savored and returned to.
Despite the quibbles I might have with the punctuation of its title, I expected “The Pere Lachaise Cemetery–A Nineteenth Century Idealization of Parisian Society” to be a history of the cemetery. Instead, it’s a kind of academic word salad where I couldn’t figure out how one sentence led to the next. I know enough about the history Pere Lachaise not to be thrown by weird flow of time through the essay, but your mileage may vary. A linear progression would have served the material much better.
Luckily, it is entirely unnecessary to read the text in order to draw the maximum amount of pleasure from this book. It’s slipcased, oversized, clothbound, with smooth matte pages that reproduce the photographs in a dense spectrum of grays. This cemetery book is a pinnacle of the subject and will be an ornament to your collection.
Full disclosure: This was the first project I helped fund on Kickstarter. Mark suffered a heart attack soon after the Kickstarter ended, so the book was delayed for years, but I more than got my money’s worth.
This is reblogged from the Western Legends Publishing blog, where it appeared almost two weeks ago. I’ve been traveling and blogging from my phone was much more difficult than I expected. This will be a new Cemetery of the Week tomorrow, though, so tune in again!
How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…
I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.
We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) calledPermanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.
For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.
Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.
By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.
Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.
April 28th, 2012 — Obscura Day — is an international celebration of unusual places, full of expeditions, back room tours & explorations of the hidden wonders in your own hometown.
There are several cemetery-based explorations this year:
Explore the Glasgow Necropolis
“Come out on Obscura Day and explore the historic Glasgow Necropolis, founded in 1833 and the final resting place of over 50,000 people. This beautiful park style cemetery’s hillside vantage point allows great views of the city as well as possible chance to see wild deer roaming the grounds. We’ll explore the city’s history and notable deceased with a wander amongst the more than 3500 monuments.”
Explore Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery with Context Travel
“Opened in 1804, the cemetery inspired new ways of commemorating the dead. A reflection of wider architectural developments, the ornate mausolea of Père Lachaise were designed to express the personalities and professions of the deceased as well as their affiliations within the political and religious divisions that continually fractured French history. A trip to Père Lachaise is a crash course in two hundred years of French history brought to life by an atmospheric landscape that has fascinated Parisian tourists for centuries.”
The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
“Laurel Hill is more than just a cemetery. It is an outdoor sculptural garden, horticultural gem and a truly unique historical resource. With over 175 years of history, there are countless stories to be told, including ones of brave military heroes, powerful captains of industry and selfless philanthropists. But what about tales of the bizarre and mysterious? Follow your curiosity off the beaten path and down in to a crypt… you’ll have dinner conversation for years to come. This walking tour will be led by resident tour guide, Dave Horwitz and conclude with wine, beer and light refreshments.”
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