EDITOR’S NOTE: Utne Reader, The Best of the Alternative Press, reprinted Sion Dayson’s excellent essay “Life Lessons in Père Lachaise Cemetery” in its July/August, 2012, issue. This is terrific recognition for Sion’s work and for the magazine. Congratulations all around. Raise a glass of Talisker, everyone.
See all of Sion’s work on NC here.
Life Lessons in Père Lachaise
By Sion Dayson
Stunned to stillness
we remember who we
are and why we are here…
In the immense
everything spins with
—From “Winter Solstice” by Rebecca Parker
For the past three and a half years, I’ve lived a ten-minute walk from Père Lachaise, the famed Parisian cemetery that’s home to many historic luminaries – everyone from Abelard to Chopin, Edith Piaf to Marcel Proust.
In recent weeks, talk has centered on writer Oscar Wilde; his tomb now stands encircled by thick glass, a barrier aimed to protect the stone from endless admirers’ kisses. (Of course people have already started leaving their lipstick prints on the Plexiglas instead).
Despite my close proximity to Père Lachaise, picking up the Parisian affection for the place didn’t come naturally. Not only tourists in search of Jim Morrison’s grave frequent Père Lachaise, you see. Parisians adore their largest cemetery and a stroll along its cobblestone alleys is as popular a local pastime as any.
It took me some time to understand the appeal. Tracking down rock stars’ headstones seemed less bizarre than having dates amongst the dead.
Then one day, just as late summer was giving way to early fall, I found myself inextricably drawn to Père Lachaise. I was wrestling with a section of my first novel. Struggle was nothing new when it came to the book, but I had arrived at the home stretch; only one more scene and I would be done.
Not surprisingly, stage fright consumed me and I couldn’t finish. Frustrated, I made a spontaneous trek to Père Lachaise to clear my mind. Though it’d never been a destination I sought before, it somehow seemed fitting to seek solace there as I searched for closure.
I entered off Rue du Repos (literally ‘Street of Rest’) rather than the main entrance, as this was the side closest to my apartment. I roamed aimlessly for a while until I climbed up the steps toward the crematorium. I decided to sit for a spell.
The sun shone bright, heat warming my skin. The kind of day, in other words, that made even a cemetery feel not morbid, but light and gay. On the patch of grass in front of me, people engaged in the type of casual activities that had heretofore perplexed me in this setting: picnicking on blankets, couples sneaking kisses at every turn.
With the clear view over the city, though (the Eiffel Tower is visible from this vantage point), and trees rising up between the hard stones, I had to admit I began to see the charm.
“S’il vous plait. Mesdames, Messieurs,” came a booming male voice breaking the relaxed atmosphere. “Vous êtes dans une cimetière, pas un jardin public. Il y a des gens morts ici.” (“Please, ladies and gentlemen,” he implored. “You’re in a cemetery, not a garden. There are dead people here.”)
Well, yes. Kind of my point. Not that I appreciated his approach.
The man ushered the people off the grass, telling them it was forbidden. He wasn’t official security; it seemed he was just bothered by the sight of those lazing around as if in a park.
What was the balance here, I wondered, when surrounded by so many tombs? The right etiquette, a show of proper respect?
I started scratching out notes in my journal, though I can’t say I was focused. When two older women in their 60s sat down next to me, I knew I should just forget my preoccupation with the book for the moment.
The women proceeded to have a very French conversation – a list of complaints despite the beautiful day. A late reimbursement from Social Security for one; how the sun was hurting her eyes for the other.
Some time later, a man with long, curly hair and wearing a ratty Doors T-shirt bounded up to the women.
“Ma sexologue!” he joked, then gave each of them a kiss on both cheeks.
The women laughed and swiped their hands playfully at him.
I tried to fit this odd trio together – the gritty guy with the ponytail, the elegant older Mesdames.
They began discussing the case of Marianne, a woman it seemed who had just that week been attacked in the cemetery.
“She’s been visiting her husband every day for 15 years,” one of the women said, shaking her head. How alarming it was that you couldn’t be safe even here, they agreed.
It was decided that they should check in on Marianne’s husband – tend the flowers at his plot until Marianne could return.
“Vous êtes la fille spirituelle de Josephine Baker” the man said, now directing his attention toward me. If my brown skin allowed it, I might have blushed. Josephine Baker’s spiritual daughter? Sounded like a compliment to me.
The man took his leave and the two women remarked, Il est toujours très correct. Marrant, mais très correct.
It’s important to be “correct” – as in appropriate – in France. It still surprises me sometimes what does and does not pass for appropriate, though.
As if I had somehow been inducted into a secret society (maybe they thought I really was related to Josephine Baker?), the two women began chatting with me.
One, it turned out, was an historian and liked collecting quotes. She had an example for everyone in the cemetery.
“Avec le talent on fait ce qu’on veut. Avec le génie, on fait ce qu’on peut.” That pearl of wisdom – that with talent we do what we want; with genius we do what we can – is courtesy of Ingres, the painter.
“Do you know Félix Faure?” she asked me.
I admitted that I did not. (Oh, my clumsy hold on French history!)
“President,” she said. “You want to know how he died?” She chuckled. “Making love to a prostitute in the Elysée!”
By this point, I really liked these ladies.
Another man strolled by and another round of bonjours and bises ensued.
“But Monsieur, you’re wearing a sweater! It’s so hot out!”
“Isn’t it nice?” he asked.
“It’s horrible!” This must have been the one whose eyes were also hurting from the sun.
As this new trio talked easily of goings on at Père Lachaise, it dawned on me: these were cemetery regulars. They visited every day and knew every inch of the place. This revelation suddenly seemed remarkable. The discovery of Père Lachaise habitués left me much happier than when I had come in.
The problem of the book still loomed, however. I returned the following day, now drawn as much by the lively regulars as to whatever I thought I was going to find in the first place. I went back to the grassy area, though I didn’t linger for long. It didn’t seem right to start stalking these older men and women; I’d have to rely on a chance meeting again.
I settled in at a quiet corner of the cemetery, on a bench half in shade, half in sun. I looked at the graves around me, the crypts and vaults, their different shapes and sizes. Famous people, sure, but ‘ordinary’ ones beneath the earth, too. Don’t differences become petty once we’re all under so much dirt?
Rather than an assumed gloom, my surroundings bolstered me. So many different stories here; one right after another. An artist next to an alchemist, a mother next to a mathematician. Lives buried, but once lived. What better reminder that we have just this one life?
I wrote the last scene I had to write for my book straight through. As a writer who claws painfully for every word, it was the easiest my pen had ever flowed; Père Lachaise had indeed inspired magic.
On December 22, 2011, I attended my first funeral held at Père Lachaise. George Whitman, the legendary owner of beloved bookstore Shakespeare and Company was laid to rest with a moving tribute befitting his spirit. The man who walked on foot through Central America, read a book every night, and welcomed literally thousands of writers to sleep, work, and create in his bookshop, embodied an unwavering generosity and trust of humanity almost startling in an increasingly divided world. “Be not inhospitable to strangers/Lest they be angels in disguise” – these Yeats lines were written on the bookstore’s walls and manifested by Whitman’s actions over his 98 years.
Family and friends took turns telling stories of the bookstore and its eccentric owner; not only gratitude for the shelter provided, but tales of marriages made and friendships borne. To the accompaniment of a jazz trio, we sang “You are my Sunshine” and laughed and cried. It’s always amazed me how mourning and celebration mingle. How often, they can be one and the same. Grief and joy, sadness and wonder; we contain such riches inside us at all times.
The sky was overcast; it was the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. But the day after, and then the day after that – and continuing on and on – we’re gaining more light, the days expanding little by little again.
I’ve come to adopt the Parisian affection for Père Lachaise, no longer depressed by the death housed there, but rather heartened by the lives that were led. As writer Jeanette Winterson said at Whitman’s service, he lived in such a way that made the rest of us ask, “Why should we be afraid of life?”
As I walk in Père Lachaise and happen upon tombstones by chance – of Colette and Balzac, Isadora Duncan and names I do not know – this is the question that resounds inside. And really, it’s the obvious answer that resonates even more loudly.
Here in the City of Light, I’ve learned how strolling a cemetery can become a pastime, how it helps one appreciate the golden present. I feel a thousand souls around me, as I wander humbled and curious and awestruck through the maze. The cold stones seem to whisper, warm possibilities of flesh and blood: Don’t be afraid of life. Live it. Love it. Embrace every single day.
—Photos and Text by Sion Dayson
Sion Dayson lives in Paris. Her work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Wall Street Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Six Sentences (Volume 3) and the anthologies Sounds of this House and Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for Fiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And her first novel recently placed as a semifinalist in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. You can read more of her experiences in Paris at her blog, paris (im)perfect, and find out about all of her work at siondayson.com.