I love graveyards.
I try to visit them whenever I am traveling in a new city. Often they are more beautiful than the city parks and they are always, without fail, worth the price of admission (free).
In Durham, I sometimes run through the historic antebellum Maplewood Cemetery, set on a grassy knoll on the old West Side. And I love the city of Copenhagen’s, with it’s bike paths – that spot is probably first in my heart.
But one of the most beautiful cemeteries is in Paris – the Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise.
Pere-Lachaise is where a lot of movie scenes are filmed and it is the resting place of thousands of famous artists and musicians – Maria Callas, Marcel Marceau, Colette and Jim Morrison (a wildly popular one) and on and on.
But last weekend I went in search of Oscar Wilde. His is the famous iconic monument that people travel from all over the world to see. And they come explicitly to kiss his gravestone with their juicy, lipsticked mouths.
Mac and I trailed through the enormous labyrinth paved with cobblestones, calling out names. I spied a few people taking pictures down one of the rows. Yes, there it was – quite large and sort of sphynx-like. And there the kiss prints were – bright fuschias, pale pinks and reds all over the stone, showcasing our eternal love affair with the great Irish writer.
Wilde was brilliant, funny, controversial, flamboyant – the life of the party who stayed late and left tongues wagging in his wake. A playwright, journalist, social critic, a wit, a gossip and a man supremely confident in his own voice and sense of style.
He seemed to be one of those personalities who was completely aware of his effect, even cocky, but it doesn’t matter, because he used that arrogance in such a delicious way – we love him at the same time he is tearing into us about something. A very difficult feat to pull off as a writer.
But I think what endears this dead man to his modern public most, is that he lived his life out in the open, he was what he was and made no apologies for it. In his own words:
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
So the presumptuous kisses are perfect – because wouldn’t he have loved it?
Unfortunately, the French authorities don’t share Mr. Wilde’s sardonic sense, and have now placed a plexiglass barrier around the base to keep all of the groupie lips off. A move that’s not very French-like, if you ask me.
I can’t think of that many men or women today as courageous as he was, living openly gay before the turn of the century. So extremely prolific, devoted to his art and living fully and passionately in the face of ignorance and hatred.
Mr. Wilde spoke to me that day, telling me to keep writing while there is still time (time he wished he still had). Even when there’s nothing there or the writing’s really bad. But to risk a little bit, for goodness sake.
To pull a bold, glittery scarf out of my pocket and wear it, and let the bright colors run wild down my neck and trail behind me as I race around this city. To just be brave. To create and not judge. But mostly, to just be my own crazy self. Because, as Oscar famously said “everyone else is already taken”.
Later, strolling up and down the rows, we saw so many other unrecognizable names – the seemingly quiet lives marked with simple curved headstones. Plot after plot of anonymous (to me) mothers, children, families.
But occasionally one or two stood out – a grave with a record player cemented onto it – for a teenage boy who had loved his deejay job. A stunning piece of personal art. And several headstones with big, glossy glamour photos propped against them.
Plain, unadorned, rectangular slabs lay next to elaborate structures with stained glass windows and even pews inside. There were some with fresh flowers but many that were neglected, overgrown, even falling down.
Each little square was a unique entity – like those shoe box dioramas we made in grade school. Each box a story of a life, of a family, what they did, who they were. And all assembled, comprising a diverse little town of residents most of whom had never crossed paths, or even centuries.
It gives me a lot to think about every time I explore these graveyards. What do these people have to say to me? It’s the question that keeps me wandering for hours through their quiet resting places.
At Pere-Lachaise that early June day, I remember the noonday sun really starting to heat up, but a pleasant breeze making the leaves way above our heads rustle and whisper down to us.
And in the cool, dappled shade of the maple grove, I experienced an eerie feeling of empty sadness, and yet deep peace, at the same time – is that even possible?
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
2 thoughts on “Graveyard kisses”
Oh Beth, such an evocative peaceful journey you’ve shared with us!! I really loved Paris. Some of the graves you described sound like the kind of above-ground, statuesque crypts in the grand cemetaries in New Orleans. Supposedly, the reason there ivies in the fact that the water table is very high. When I was a girl we would knock over the mud towers where crawfish live and see the water about 4 or 5 inches down. I wonder if it was the same in France.
I wish I could remember the name of the perfect children’s book shop I visited just near a park. It was like I was dreaming on that stop.
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Your quote of Oscar Wilde reminded me of words of wisdom by Maya Angelou. “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Thank you, Beth, for sharing your writing. I see each one as a true gift.
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