Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante. Actually, I’m not talking about the Pantheon, where all of the « official » great men (and one woman) of France are buried. I’m talking about the cimitière du Père Lachaise in Paris.
I visited it while I was in Paris last week. It was my first time. I was astonished. On a rainy morning, without an umbrella, smelling like wet dog, I walked through this famous cemetery for hours and hours, looking, sometimes unsuccessfully, for the tombs of some of the most important figures of literary, artistic, scientific and political history. I went into it not knowing exactly what to expect. I thought maybe it would take an hour to visit. But what I found was a treasure trove of headstones bearing the names of illustrious individuals whom, if they were still alive, I would love to sit down to pick their brains. Although I didn’t actually get to converse with the dead, I felt overwhelmed by the proximity of their decaying bodies, knowing these cadavers under the ground once contained incredible people.
Molière, La Fontaine, Delacroix, Georges Bizet, Alfred Musset, Edith Piaf…but also Isadora Duncan, Max Ernst, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas, Michel Proust…
First of all, let’s take a look at the male-female ratio. The Pantheon only contains one woman who is recognized for her own achievements, Marie Curie. Père Lachaise, in comparison, is more like a co-ed dorm, where men and women all live, sleep, and party together. I’d say, a much better example of the grands hommes who build a nation – and by hommes I mean personnes…let’s not be linguistically exclusive.
And now take a look at the national origins of these icons and of their (tombstone) neighbors. The inhabitants of this afterlife alcove belong to an incredibly intercultural and interreligious community. So many diverse backgrounds. Used to catholic cemeteries, I at first was shocked to see stars of David engraved on the graves (bahaha). And then I started to notice even different alphabets and languages that I did not understand. Suddenly it clicked: this odd place is a monument to the grands hommes of the world. All of these people, both famous and “normal,” are commemorated in one shared space. They testify to the change towards an international community that has reached its peak in the last twenty years, and will most likely continue to develop. Père Lachaise is the real Pantheon of the world – ahead of its time when it was created in 1805.
I can just imagine them throwing a party every night and philosophizing about life (and death), maybe sometimes inviting friends from other world-renowned cemeteries. Intercultural communication at its finest.