Whilst on a trip to Paris with Monika, we paid a visit to two cemeteries; one, the cemetery at Montmartre, near our hotel, and the other, the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in the east of the city. The cemetery at Montmartre was interesting in the way it was very much a part of the city, rather than a place divorced from life. This feeling was enhanced by the bridge which ran above it, beneath which the tombs of the dead reminded me of the makeshift dwellings put up by the homeless.
The first grave we saw took my interest, since a cat was laying on to of it, dead centre, looking towards the headstone. I took a photograph (which I have since, accidentally deleted) and immediately, a lady, standing with a man (I presume was her husband) asked me in French, ‘why did you take a picture?’ I must confess here that I do not speak French and relied on Monika who does. I explained that I was interested in the cat and was amazed to discover that the grave was that of her mother. Suddenly, from an anonymous grave with an anonymous name, the memorial had come to mean much more. There was a physical, living connection. She explained in polite conversation, that the cat had been there most of the day and hadn’t moved even when she busied herself about the grave arranging flowers and so on. Cats, we were to discover, were a common feature of the cemetery.
The day we visited was November 1st, a public holiday and the Day of the Dead, a time in some European countries when people visit the graves of loved ones. I knew, through Monika, that it was an important time in Poland, and, sure enough, where there were Polish graves in the cemetery, there were Poles, laying flowers, saying prayers, and remembering those of their country who had long since died; a tradition which is both poignant and to be admired. Later, when we visited Pere Lachaise, we found the grave of Chopin bedecked with flowers and a sashes of the Polish colours.
Some of the graves in the Montmartre Cemetery were particularly beautiful. Many were like tiny dwellings replete with doors and windows (usually stained glass), and although many had decayed through the ravages of time, their wearied state accentuated the romantacism inherent in many such cemeteries.
One sculpted tomb was particularly beautiful. It showed what I presume to be the deceased, not as he was whilst living, but as he was dead. His sunken features, his closed eyes, and the exposed shoulder all pointed to something deeper than sleep. The eyes in particular were striking, in that one could see they were the eyes of a man who would never open them again. The shroud had been pulled back, to allow one last look at his face, a look which had lasted over a century. I say, as he was dead, but of course he still is dead, and this sculpture serves in a way to remind us, that even in death we are not free from ‘time’s relentless melt’.
At Pere Lachaise, I was keen to visit the graves of artists, writers and composers such as Ingres, Moliere, Pissarro, Proust, Chopin, Gericault, Delacroix and Wilde amongst many others and having bought a map of the cemetery (which is vast) Monika and I planned our visit and began to seek them out.
It was strange – in the case of the various painters buried there – that having seen their work in the Louvre, we were now standing above their remains. One painting, for example, which we had seen in the Louvre, stuck in my mind as I stood next to the grave of Ingres (1780-1867). It was his portrait, painted in 1832, of Louis Francois Bertin, one of the most famous works by the artist, and one which is so full of life, it hardly seemed possible that the man in the painting and the man who painted it were long since dead. How was it, that I had seen something I know Ingres had also (obviously) seen, yet here I was, standing above his grave where he had lay for over a century before I was even born. That is the power of painting; they are objects into which the artist paints him or herself, in brushstrokes (particularly in the case of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works we saw) which made in moment can exist for all time.
On the way home from Paris, as I passed beneath the sea in the channel tunnel, I began to write about the visit to Pere Lachaise. What I had been aware of as we walked around, was the content of the photographs I was taking, some of which follow:
They were all images of decay, the gradual fall into disrepair of the numerous memorials in this vast necropolis, and, given the work I have lately been doing on the ‘gestures’ of things, I began to consider the ‘gesture’ of this particular cemetery. What follows is what I wrote on the way home:
(The gesture is) like mould, lichen, which grows slowly in small patches over a long period of time. But these spores are invisible, we cannot see them except in the broken panes of glass, the flaked paint, the verdigris patinas on the doors to individual tombs, the chipped stones; every trace of time’s slow, considered vandalism. It’s always present in the cemetery and every now and then, one detects a trace of its fleeting presence – the scent of vinegar which lingers around a tomb where the glass is missing, where the door is open, or where the iron gates have corroded and been worn through by time’s relentless scratching; time’s relentlessness.
Even when all trace of the bones has gone, long after the burial clothes and the casket, time will continue its malevolence, picking at the fabric of memory, wearing down the words, smoothing over names, dismantling the dead and our memories of them, withering through slow alchemy these parts into atoms. Candles lit and placed beside the graves will soon be extinguished, flowers will be wilted, trees will be naked, picked of their leaves and left like confetti, to remind the living of this withering certainty.
Cemeteries are not just places where the dead are dismantled, where the names by which these parts were held together are also broken apart. They are as much for the living, who fight with death to keep the parts together, to deny death, to deny its certainty; to deny their own futures. The living wander the graves to maintain the present. Inside cemeteries the present is stretched.
We walk through cemeteries, and with our minds like nets try and catch this butterfly called Time, but we are assailed by its beauty, we stand open-mouthed and wait for the crysalis to be spun with invisible thread around us.”
Cemeteries have something in common with old photographs, particularly when we consider the the writing of Roland Barthes who writes that photographs have within them the ‘catastrophe of death,’ and that, ‘in the photograph, Time’s immobilisation assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: Time is engorged…’. In cemeteries too, Time is somehow engorged and obviously contains – in abundance – that catastophe. One has the impression of time standing still, stopped by the dates of death carved into the many gravestones and tombs, yet we know, all too well, that time continues…