The funny thing about graveyards, at least some graveyards, is how they extend the popularity contest that can so dog the living. At Père Lachaise
cemetery in Paris, for example, crowds ignore the tombs of men and women who must have mattered to some extent, considering the size of the monuments erected to their memory, size being another marker of importance; but who are they now, to anyone but their descendants or, perhaps, followers? Most visitors head right past them, searching for the graves of the famous.
I went to Père Lachaise because friends had universally recommended it, and I was not disappointed. It is a lovely place to walk, to admire the sculpture, to read the sentiments etched into stone, some partly weathered away, to think about life and death and fame and impermanence. At Lachaise, the biggest draw is the "Light My Fire" man Jim Morrison, whose grave is reportedly the most visited in the world. The second most popular in the cemetery tourist trade is that of the voodoo queen, in New Orleans
. That one I saw and thanks to the commentary of an unofficial and colourful guide, I enjoyed it. Morrison's I missed, not intentionally -- who doesn't love a curiosity -- but because I didn't feel like going back to track it down after somehow skirting it on my first try. There was so much else to see. Oscar Wilde's grave may be the next most renown at Père Lachaise. This wit, playwright, novelist, poet was very popular before he was arrested for "indecent acts with men," imprisoned, and died destitute at 46. Another bad boy, like Morrison: nothing like the allure of fallen stars. Whatever is left of Wilde remains far up the hill from the main entrance, but I persisted, again out of curiosity, and found it by spotting the throng around it. The modernist stone angel that adorns the stone lacks the romantic grace of the figure on Chopin's tomb, for example, or the grandeur of La Fontaine's and Moliere's, contemporaries and French literature greats whose memorials share the same plot. In fact, according to one American tourist who was deciding whether or not to pose for a picture at the Wilde grave: "It's not even cute, but since we came all this way...." A more amusing encounter occurred chez Bizet, where I found two fans whistling tunes from "Carmen" at the composer's grave. Made me want to revisit the wonderful duet from The Pearl Fishers
Things that live after us. The quest for immortality. We want at least some part of ourselves to endure... in a graveyard, a diary, a foundation bearing our name, a book, a painting, an opera. It may be why some 14,000 years ago, hunters who looked like us and had our same capacity for intelligence walked deep into Grotte Niaux
to leave paintings whose significance we can only guess. Why determined and ambitious humans in the neolithic period
went to immense trouble to align mammoth stones in fields near present-day Carnac, in Brittany, monuments that have no names and no certain meaning, except to show that those folks, like Kilroy, were here.