Alone Among the Dead

I am not the sort of tourist who makes it a practice to visit cemeteries during my travels.  I know some people enjoy haunting the final resting places of the famous, but I do not.  Frankly, I don't see the appeal of wasting my life visiting the dead. 

I've been to Paris numerous times, but have oly visited Père Lachaise Cemetery once (I reluctantly agreed to tour it with my mother after extracting a promise from her that we would eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant I'd heard about in the 2nd arrondisement.  My mom nurtures an an ardent belief that when in Rome one should eat as the Romans - even if one craves a burrito!  After eight days of watching her eat goose liver and snails, I was jonesing for some chips and salsa.  But that's another story...). 

On a warm September day, we caught the metro to the cemetery, paid a ridiculous amount of money for a map, and then got lost in a maze of graves, tombstones, statues, and crypts.  I watched in bemusement as my mom snapped photographs of the graves of Edith Piaf, George Bizet, Frederic Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jim Morrison (Though I do confess to feeling a thrill and snapping my own picture when we came to the statue of a winged angel that marked the final resting place of Oscar Wilde).

With no small amount of shame, I had to admit that the romp through the cemetery reminded me of those Hollywood Bus Tours - the ones that promise tourists peeks at the homes of the rich and famous.  I wondered what the wit Wilde would have thought of people trampling over his grave, vandalizing his winged angel statue (someone had knocked the genitals off of the poor thing), and taking pictures of the place that contained his decaying bones.

The only other time I willingly visited a cemetery was on my recent visit to Austria.

St. Peter's cemetery in Salzburg is one of the oldest, most beautiful cemeteries in the world and is the final resting place for a number of famous personalities, including Mozart's sister and Haydn's brother. The Catacombs, hewn out of the Mönchsberg rock, are said to be of early Christian origin.

We visited St. Peter's Cemetery and Catacombs late in the day, just before the gloaming, and found ourselves alone among the dead. We strolled down the narrow aisles, finally stopping at a grave covered in wilted pansies. The hand painted marker indicated it was the grave of Maria Stumpfoggerin who had died on October 10, 1717. I have always had a morbid curiosity in relation to tombstones. I can't pass one without glancing at the name and dates listed and then doing a quick mental calculation to determine the poor soul's age at the time of their death. Maria's marker did not list her date of birth. I wondered if she had died young or after living a long, hardy life. That thought lead to others. I stood at the grave for a long time, wondering about Maria. Had she lived a happy life? Had she attended church at St. Peter's? How had she died? Was it illness or accident? And why was her grave covered in purple and yellow flowers?

Later, I found out that the graves are tended by local families.  They decorate them with candles, fir branches, and flowers. Pansies are the most popular flower, because their name means "thoughts." I wondered if the pansies littering Maria's grave had had something to do with my thoughts that day.  Perhaps my thoughts allowed Maria to live once more, if only for a moment. Did she flitter around me, unseen? Was that the gentle breeze that blew over my cheeks as I turned to walk away?


stephanie said...

I LOVE visiting old (the older the better) cemetaries! Like you, I like to look at names and try and figure out how long they lived. In French cemetaries, people like to place a framed photograph of the deceased, some of them dating from the early 1900's, and I find it fascinating to put a face on that name and life and try to imagine what their life was like. I enjoy visiting le cimetiere du Pere Lachaise because of the amazing photo opportunities, so many beautiful sculptures there. I also remember how neat that cemetary we visited together in Kyoto was. :)

ParisMaddy said...

There are lessons written into those old stones and I come away, not crushed, but inspired. Thanks for going to the cemetery in Paris with me. It's all so frail and temporary that we have no choice but to accept our earthly limitations and celebrate with another glass of champagne and plate of burritos. Cheers, my dear.

Cindy Miles said...

I love old cemeteries! Bonaventure in Savannah is so gorgeous. My grandmother used to take my mom and her siblings there for walks and picnics! (morbid sounding, I know, but the place is more like a park!) As always, I love your view of things Leah! Another beautiful post! :) XOXOXO