Archive for the ‘Pere Lachaise’ Category

Two Days Dedicated to the Dead

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

As in any old major city, dealing with the dead is a serious issue; so, on Thursday, we went to the Catacombs and on Friday we went to the Père Lachaise cemetery to learn about how Paris solved their problem.

In the 19th century, most people were buried in a big pit, except for the rich who could afford to be buried in a church yard.  When Paris flooded, the dead bodies would contaminate the water, so the government had to come up with solutions to get the bodies away from the city.

It took two years (1786-1788) to transfer the bodies into the catacombs, which used to be quarries.  They added the bodies with the intention of having the catacombs be a tourist attraction, as evident by the arrangement of some of the bones.  There are quotes throughout the catacombs with the purpose of causing you to think about your own morality. For me, seeing all of the bones had a greater effect than the quotes.  I was amazed by all of bones from approximately 6 million people there, but then felt a little guilty about it because I don’t think I would want my own bones or that of family members to be displaced in such a way and used for tours.

I had been to the catacombs in Rome before this, but there the bones were tucked away in hole; so, when you toured, you could not see all of the individual bones.  It was more respectful to the dead (and was not created with the intention of becoming a tourist attraction), but you did not gain as much of a sense of the large quantity of the dead there nor reflect upon your own death and appearance generations later.

Père Lachaise cemetery was built in 1804 and at the time was outside of the city.  At first, no one wanted to be buried in it because it wasn’t sacred ground; so, famous people were reburied in the cemetery to attract people.  Ironically, now everyone wants to be buried in it and it is now competitive and very expensive.  There is very little green space in the cemetery because all of the lots are right next to each other and covered in stone or mausoleum. I was surprised that you can buy lots for only 10, 20, or 50 years if you can’t afford to be buried in there for perpetuity so that you can have family visit you there and have a claim to being in the ground there at some point.  Maybe I’m just not French enough to understand the appeal of that option?

It is really easy to get lost in the cemetery since it is so crowded with tombs and a lot of them look similar.  As you can see in the map layout, the design is a combination of curvilinear paths (English garden design) and more formal grids (French garden design).

After every class, we get either pastries or chocolates and, after these two days of classes, they were especially desired.  A quote from one of the days (I believe it was Professor Smith?): “chocolate is better than dorms.”