The Pere Lachaise Cemetary
"People fear death even more than pain. It's strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend."
Jim Morrison, 'The Lizard King'
The largest park space in Paris and one of the most popular with tourists is full of dead people. Yes, it's the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The ground is over a hundred acres containing over 70, 000 plots and decorated with over 5000 trees. These days it's more than a beautiful and atmospheric mausoleum, it's an open-air museum and a hall of fame dedicated to the countless heroes of modernism buried here. Contrary to popular belief Paris is not called the city of lights because of the lights on the Eiffel tower, the nickname comes from the lights of the shining minds that were drawn to Paris in it's 'belle epoch' Artists, Scientists, Soldiers, Politicians, Revolutionaries, Visionaries and various geniuses have their final resting place at Pere Lachaise.
2 Million people visit Pere Lachaise each year and many of them are on personal pilgrimage to pay respect to the composer Chopin. Chopin has the most annual visitors but not far behind him there is Jim Morrison 'The Lizard King' of the Doors. And, finally free to enjoy a languorous and no doubt sartorially excellent death, Oscar Wilde is here too. You can also pay respects to 'The Little Sparrow' Edith Piaf, famous and tragic French singer.
There are many more to speak of but the best thing to do is find out in advance whose memorial you want to see and ask the cemetery staff for directions when you get there.
Pere Lachaise was the idea of the Second Republic under Napoleon, who insisted that it was not safe for Parisians to bury their dead in the heart of the city and encouraged them to switch to the new ground. The Parisians weren't happy about this and they were reluctant to bury their loved ones away from the rest of the family tombs. The Bonapartists hit upon the genius idea of burying some French heroes at Pere Lachaise to make the new cemetery cool.
First off they dug up La Fontaine and Moliere and moved them to the new graveyard. Fontaine was a master poet and writer of fables who was so well loved by the French that most educated Frenchmen could quote him at length. It is said that he was the first to master the poetic use of the French language.
Moliere was the master playwright of French comedy, the inventor of modern satirical theatre and all round French renaissance hero, attacker of hypocrisy and prolific user of razor sharp French wit.
But to really drop the proverbial bomb in inaugurating the new cemetery, the republicans managed to get the remains of a pair of twelfth century lovers, 'Heloise and Abelard'. Heloise and Abelard were, and to some still are, the original, real-life Romeo and Juliet. The lovers have captured imaginations for centuries, largely because their letters of correspondence make their story so real, so vivid and so hot bloodedly sexual.
Debates still rage about the details of the story but it seems that the love they had was, at least for a time, passionately reciprocal, but the pressures of career, church, family and public opinion in 12 th century France proved too much.
Abelard was a famous man, a celebrity scholar and thinker albeit a controversial one accused of heresy on several occasions. Heloise was a girl twenty years his junior, in his own words she wasn't stunningly beautiful but she was fair and made doubly attractive by the fact that she was educated enough to read and love literature.
Abelard targeted Heloise quite tactically and even bragged to his mate that she would be easy game due to his celebrity. He applied to work as her private tutor. Her Uncle, who was her custodian, encouraged Abelard to spend as much time alone with her as possible. The sexual Olympics that followed are hinted at in Heloise's later letters to Abelard.
"If Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, wanted to make me his wife, I would tell him that I would be more honoured to be not his Queen but Abelard's whore."
Thing's went wrong as soon as Heloise got pregnant. She refused to marry him, knowing it could destroy his career as a theologian, but he begged her to, possibly out of fear of her Uncle, possibly out of love. As soon as the child was born however, it was packed off to live with a relative and Heloise was taken to a nunnery where it seems Abelard obliged her into the sisterhood. Heloise's uncle was enraged that his niece had been put out to pasture like this and sent his men round to Abelard's house. There is no polite way to say what they did to him there, suffice to say that all men should wince sympathetically.
Without any family jewels to speak of Abelard decided he may as well go into the monastery and they both ended up separated by their roles within the church. They continued to write to one another and while Heloise remembered their passions fondly and wrote about them Abelard became more pious and colder with age. In the end she wrote to him.
"Why have you neglected me so? You neither speak to me when you are here nor write to me when you are absent. I know now, and everyone around me says, that your love was nothing more than the flame of love which was soon quenched."
But they never fell out of touch completely and they were eventually buried side by side like lovers, except that an over-zealous monk put a wooden divider between them in the coffin, just in case.
The monument to Heloise and Abelard is still a place of pilgrimage for lovers today and just another of the many reasons why Pere Lachaise is worth a visit.