Memento Mori- My Morbid Paris

12 Dec

If you have been to Paris before, I am sure you’ve seen the Arc de Triomphe, visited the Louvre and Notre Dame, perhaps a tour of the Siene, and of course the Eiffel Tower but what do you do if you’ve seen all the things you’re supposed to see?

You do what you want, and I want to see cemeteries.

1.  Pere-Lachaise Cemetery ($ Free)-  Yes, this is the one with Jim Morrison’s grave, but it also has many more (around 70,000 dating from 1804) graves in total, and is the eternal resting place for other greats such as writers Oscar Wilde, Honore de Balzac, Jean-Baptiste Moliere, Marcel Proust, composer Frederic Chopin, painter Gustave Dore, and dancer Isadora Duncan.

Pere-Lachaise (22)Oscar Wilde’s grave you will notice now has a guard rail around it, then another plastic barrier protecting the actual grave.  This atrocity is because years ago, people could kiss the grave and leave lipstick marks behind.  It made for a decoration I think Oscar himself would have been fond of but it has since been stopped.  People still mark up the plastic covering with nail polish and lipstick; confessing their love for Wilde and outcasts everywhere.

Pere-Lachaise (58)The only other grave with a guard rail is that of Jim Morrison’s, which once had an armed guard looking after it so I guess activity there has calmed down.  People still jump the fence to leave their terrible seventh grade poetry and joints at his grave.  I would imagine that Oscar is rolling in laughter and Jim is face down at the torture of the grave side sing alongs alone.

Pro-tip:  There are many entrances to the cemetery, but only one that will give you a paper copy of the map to take with you (trust me, you need this).  The front entrance can be accessed from Metro stops Phillipe-Auguste or Pere-Lachaise.  If you come from Porte Gambetta, go ahead and walk straight all the way through to the front. 

2.  Montmartre Cemetery ($ Free)- While looking for something to make my less than thrilling trip the Moulin Rouge worth it, I found this ‘little’ gem.  It is sometimes referred to as the little Pere-Lachaise, with around 20,000 tombs dating from 1825.

Montmartre Cemetary (28)It does not carry quite the star power as Pere-Lachaise, but does have a lot of legends, such as writer Emile Zola, Painter Edgar Degas, singer Dalida, surrealist painter Victor Brauner, writer Alexandre Dumas, clown Annie Fratellini, and my favorite German poet Heinrich Heine.

This cemetery is especially great if you’re into ‘ruin porn’ as it has not been kept up well and many graves have been broken or overrun by nature.

Pro-Tip:  Get a map when you enter from the guard station but it still might not help much.  This one is WAY more confusing than Pere-Lachaise so allow for about the same amount of time.  I was there for three hours, playing with cemetery cats and searching for Heinrich, whom I never did find. 

3.  Musee de Cluny, or the Medieval Museum (8.50 Euros with English audio guide)- I cannot say this enough, this is my favorite museum I have ever been to.  I am glad that it’s hard to find, and not one of ‘the’ places to see in Paris.  Let them have the Louvre, I’ll take this majestic time warp.

Musee Cluny (9)You start with a room of relics, and they have quite a few- WITH the bones and skulls still inside.  I have come to learn that a lot of museums have ‘relics,’ meaning the ornamental case or flask holding the relic, but not the actual relic.  I was beyond pleased to see an entire room of them.  I am not Catholic and did not even know about keeping ‘relics,’ also known as ‘body parts,’ of Saints until I lived in Spain and we had to go look at a finger in a wall (Avila).

Musee Cluny (18)I was unimpressed as I was sure it was symbolic but then I found out it was real and I’ve been obsessed since. Many of the relics in the collection are Croatian and are beautifully displayed.

photoThere they also have a large room filled different types of medieval board games from around the world.  Of course, the pieces and games came from what was lying around or from the earth so many of the pieces are made of bone.  Here is one chess set made from bones where you can see where the marrow used to be.

 

Another fun way to pass the time if you were rich and bored was to toss knuckle bones into a cup with a small opening.  Weeeee!

photo (1)

Pro-tip:  This museum is dangerously close to Notre Dame so if you plan on eating after, you might want to head away from this part of town because all of the restaurants will be filled with the very Americans you came to France to get away from.  There are always reasonably priced Turkish kabobs or Indian buffet in case of emergency.

 

 

 

 

4.  The Catacombs (8 Euros plus 3 if you want an audio guide *recommended although there are signs in English, Spanish and French.  The audio just gives you much more information)- Let me begin with good luck getting in.

I had heard tales that the Catacombs are difficult to get into and that they close without warning, are only open some mornings, and organization never posts anything on their website, etc. but this didn’t even cross my mind as I set out to see them.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, they had been closed since the 27th of November and just reopened yesterday at 10 am.  By the time I got out and ate lunch around one o’clock, they were closed again.  I wish I could get a government job in France…

On with the show- the Ossuary, or arrangement of bones, was created in 1780 underneath Paris’ then city limits in the now 14th arrondissment.  The tunnels had been already excavated because it was initially an underground quarry, whose limestone rocks built many of the most famous buildings in Paris.

Catacombes 2012 004One thing I had never heard about (probably because no one can get in to the catacombs) is before you get to the ossuary, there are two sets of sculptures built by one of the quarrymen, Decure.  Decure had been held prisoner by the English in the Balearic Islands at one time and went about painstakingly recreating the fortress of Port-Mahon, in which he was imprisoned.  He died when the quarry collapsed.

You then wind down the labyrinthine corridors until you reach the ossuary, filled with more than six million Parisians.  The bones were thrown down a hole without regard to gender or age and stacked as best would fit.  Millions of bones, thousands of hollow eyes once walked the streets above you and laughed with their friends.

Catacombes 2012 025

Some of the bones amongst the piles belong to tax evaders, revolutionary war victims, even  Alexandre Dumas, but where is not even a reasonable question.

Pro-Tip: CALL AHEAD.  Do not rely on the website as it is never updated with closures or hours.  Try to make a reservation if at all possible and get there at 10 am when they open (they are ALWAYS closed on Mondays).  Also, it’s a little wet and cold –READ- don’t wear heels.

5.  Pet Cemetery– this one is quite a hike and is probably only accessible if you have a) lots of time or b) a car at your disposal.  However, it is where Parisians have been burying their pets for years and there is even a rat section.  Awwww.

Where does your wanderlust take you?

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Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D.

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