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Champs-Elysees and Pere Lachaise

October 3, 2019
Paris, France

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

Posted by
6845 posts

Oh Mike. Beautifully put observations about Pere Lachaise. Oddly I was just there today and the Memorial to the murdered children really moved me.

The other randomly noted graves - the one of the cartoonist who worked at Charlie Hebdo and near Jim Morrison, one of the victims from the Bataclan.

Posted by
862 posts

Thanks Mike. This was well put.
I’m in Paris now and don’t plan to visit Per Lachaise this time but I was there last year and was moved to both silence and tears by these memorials.

Posted by
6145 posts

Thank you for writing this. It needs to be remembered.

Growing up as an American, to me all this was distant, in books, pictures of my father young in uniform. Then, I moved to France in the 1970s and lived near the Montrouge Cemetery. There I saw the personal family tombstones with pictures of the dead. Along with the photos were the words in French “Lost in the Holocaust”. This was no longer history, or an estimated number of 6 million plus another 4 million, plus another 6 million, but it was the graves of people who had lived close by only thirty years earlier who were loved and remembered.

These family tombstones are probably visible in many Paris-region cemeteries. They personalize the tragedy.

Posted by
253 posts

Oh Mike, you have captured the beauty, serenity and sadness that is Pere LaChaise. I will be there in a couple of weeks just to wander and reflect.
I consider Jim Morrison's grave to be a travesty. He should be dug up and moved to a corner marked "Idiots". As a college freshman, I was a fan in 1966, but he doesn't belong in Pere LaChaise. Let those that wish to pay him homage by sticking their gum to the nearby trees, go somewhere else.

Posted by
1051 posts

For American visitors in Paris, there is another moving cemetery just west of the city. Little known and rarely visited, the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial holds the remains of 1,541 American killed in World War I, 23 unknown dead from World War II, and the names of 974 missing in action in World War I. A panoramic view of Paris can be seen from the site, which is located on the slopes of Mont Valerien. The 7.5 acre cemetery is located in Suresnes, Hauts de Seines. It's about 20 minutes by automobile from the Eiffel Tower, 6.9 kilometers or around 4.5 miles or 12 minutes from Marmottan Museum. Worth a visit maybe, to visit those Americans that gave their lives for France. Check out ambc.com

Posted by
1051 posts

Sorry. Check out abmc.com for cemeteries across Europe that hold American war dead.

Posted by
5 posts

You forgot to mention the communards’ wall, where the heroic last members of the Paris commune were cornered and shot.

Posted by
218 posts

Wow! I haven’t been on this forum a long time, so I might not know the obvious, but are you a professional writer?

Loved your piece!

I laughed at the description of the Ferraris, which reminded me of my recent trip to Monaco and OMG the cars in front of Monte Carlo (I could NEVER describe it as you did, though.)

What took me aback, however, was seeing a Screaming Yellow Mustang convertible parked at the curb near Monte Carlo. Now I had that very same car for ten years (I sold it four years ago) and even at home it attracted attention everywhere I went. But in Monaco, it was a complete showstopper. People were ignoring the $150,000 Maseratis and Ferraris snaking by as they lined up take their pictures next to the Mustang. The young French man who was with us that day had stayed with us a few summers in the U.S. and drove my Mustang many times. He nearly lost his mind when he saw this!

Again, I loved your “essay” and I’ll look for some of your other posts. Write on!

Posted by
258 posts

Thank you for your wonderful replies.

I appreciate that people can have respect in cemeteries. Sadly, the same respect seems to be lacking in churches, I've noticed. No photography? Snap away and use your flash. Silence? Gab on your cellphone loud enough that the skeletons in the crypt can hear you. The church is there for YOUR amusement, so make sure to treat it like a playground.

I missed the Communard's Wall, or didn't recognize it if I saw it. If I go back, which I plan to, I'll look out for it.

One of the more interesting things I saw in Pere Lechaise was the list of (assumed) abandonded plots, and why they're assumed abandonded. Most of them dated to around 1860, and it made me wonder what happened to the families of the interred. Were they lost in the wars? Did they leave France for greener pastures? Did the memory of the burial plot just get lost over the generations? We like to use words like "eternal" when describing graves, but eternity for the people who're going to be dug up turned out to be only 150 some-odd years. It gives one pause to think how long we'll be remembered in this time of short attention spans. Is a century and a half even too much to hope for? Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things: we are the stuff of stars and into stars we will return. Our legacy will shine for millions and millions of years in the night sky before we give our elements back to the universe. I think that beats the grandest crypt or the most beautiful mosoleum.

-- Mike Beebe

Posted by
218 posts

There are cultures who observe the concepts of sasha and zamani in regards to time. Sasha is the time period in which the spirit of the departed is still remembered by those who are living and so still belongs to the present as long as those memories are alive. Once everyone who ever knew the departed has died, then they become part of the zamani, the distant past with no direction connection to the present.

I don’t know if I explained that EXACTLY right, but I think you get the relation to what you were talking about as far as your observations about the memories of the deceased.

Posted by
1 posts

My husband was born in Delle France. He has a brother who died at 4 years of age from childhood cancer, buried in village's cemetery. The burial plot needs to be renewed every 25 years. It is not like in the states where burial plots are purchased and owned by family outright. If we don't pay the renewal, the grave will be excavated.

My sister in law has been working on a contract to insure Robert's grave will remain intact long after we have died.

Posted by
112 posts

Thank you Mike for this beautifully written post. I will definitely need to set aside some time to thoroughly explore Pere Lachaise the next time I go to Paris. Most descriptions of it focus on the graves of the famous, and I much appreciate your thoughtful perspective on the thousands not often mentioned.