October 3, 2019
The stock market trembles around the world, but the line for Louis Vuitton still stretches around the block at the corner of George V Avenue and the Champs-Elysees. Small bags with high prices draw those with whose wallets contain only American Express Black cards and maybe a few 20 Euro notes to throw to the valet at the Four Seasons down the block. Parking is such a chore in Paris; 20 Euro well-spent.
A gray Ferrari sharks through traffic on the Avenue. The color is subdued for a car costing four times the annual salary of most people, but it's a Ferrari fer Chrissakes and it's best to be understated about such things. The driver juices the engine and the sharp crackle of exhaust echoes off the storefronts of the impossibly-priced-trinket shops. Gawkers stop and take in the sight of the mechanised codpiece, which is now stuck is a morass of black BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches. For $250,000, you too can be stuck in a traffic jam on the most famous street in Paris, but damned if you won't sound amazing doing it.
A tall, thin, black man in a perfect suit walks through the crowd at the Arc de Triomphe wearing a Diaz de la Muerte skull mask. Why? It's just another mystery of Paris.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery anchors the end of bus 69's route through Paris's greatest hits, which is apropos given the graveyard's fame for the famous dead it contains. I suspect most people come here to see Oscar Wilde or Jim Morrison's final repose, then poke about among the thousands of other graves and mausoleums before reboarding the 69 and returning to the Left Bank. We were certainly no different as we encountered Edith Piaf and Victor Noir (the bulge in whose pants is polished to a brass sheen).
More humbling, however, bordering the back wall of the cemetery, within earshot of children boisterously playing, are monuments to those murdered between 1939-1945.
At first, there are the graves of the singular victims: Communists, members of the Resistance, Polish officers. Their fates: "Assassinated by the Nazis", "Deported", "Died for France". Then come the victims of massacres, noted by familial name and the number of that family killed. Jewish names start to appear next and with them the obscene names that will forever mar the 20th century: Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau.
A few steps further and now even names are left behind, instead there are memorials to entire groups who vanished into that darkness. The statues of the dead here are not romanticized; they are likenesses of starved skeletal figures twisted in unendurable agony. A plaque at the memorial to Dachau features two men, one dead at the base of a wire fence, another grabbing the same fence with his back to us. At first it looks like he's trying to escape, until you notice the electrical insulators at each end of the wires. He is, in his own way, escaping.
Finally, there is a single memorial to the enfants deported from France to the camps between 1942-1944. For these 11,450 children, there is no human representation at their memorial, only ghostly forms outlined in steel rising from the ground. When I saw it, I couldn't speak. It was more than just an emotional reaction, it was an overwhelming feeling of loss -- of those short lives and of humanity itself.
Experiencing these remembrances fundamentally changed my view of the cemetery. Yes, it's fun to find the famous or to admire the funerary arts of decades passed. What gets lost is that Pere Lachaise is a place of mourning, reflection and respect. The living play as much a part here as the dead and the for the families who still miss those under the stones this place belongs to them.
They are owed our respect and reverence.
-- Mike Beebe