Everybody who was anybody in art, literature, film at one time or another has lived in Paris and most of them are buried there. So on our most recent visit it came as no surprise that Sharon suggested a visit to the Cemetiére du Montparnasse; home to some of the most honored artists, writers, and film stars that the French culture has produced or adopted.
We arrived after lunch and checked in at the gate where we were given a guide containing a map, with all the premium plots labeled neatly and circled in red. The
problem with these maps is when you use them, you are constantly referencing them and not looking around to see what is really going on. So my choice was to just stumble around on my own and see what came up.
The cemetery is laid out with wide tree lined paths lined by tombs, both old and new. The old ones that are left unattended for three years are soon dug up and replaced by newer residents who have paid dearly for the privilege of being buried “midtown” amongst the famous and near famous.
After about a half hour of wandering about, I had only come across the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg who was a well-known songwriter in the sixties. He had once written a song about a bus ticket-taker so his tomb was covered with bus tickets neatly placed under tiny rock. The rocks are a Jewish thing which show that the person is unforgotten but I do not know whether Serge was Jewish or not. But the rocks were still there never-the-less. There was also a tomb of some official from the Cinematheque Francaise and it was decorated with photographs of very famous French film stars from the fifties and sixties.
Thats all I found until I stumbled upon Sharon walking down one of these tree-lined boulevards with this very neatly dressed French gentleman. They were chatting in French as I joined them. “This gentleman is giving me a tour of the cemetery” she said. “We are on our way to see Man Rays tomb.”
“Man Ray!” I shouted. “Is he here too?”
On our way to see Man Ray’s grave, we passed a number of authors and personalities whom I never heard of but he was very familiar with them and told us everything about their lives and loves and deaths. He seemed very familiar with them as if they were his old friends.
I asked him if he worked for the cemetery, but he smiled and said he was just here visiting his wife and this would probably be his future residence also. He smiled when he said that and I saw a guy who was alone, at peace and would welcome death when it eventually came to him.
“Unconcerned but not indifferent” said the inscription above Man Ray’s tomb. On the tomb lay a single rose. Dada to the end.
Around the corner was the resting place of Delphine Seyrig who at one time was one of my favorite actresses. (L’année dernièr à Marienbad and she was also the baroness in ”The Day of the Jackal”.
A bit down and to the right was another tree-lined boulevard and just in front of a wall was Jean Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoire. Their tomb was also festooned with bus tickets underneath rocks and I asked our “host” if the tickets had any meaning.
“They started putting them on the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg because he wrote a song about a ticket-taker on the bus line. The rocks are a Jewish thing. I guess they thought it was some sort of custom so they started doing it to a lot of graves of famous people. They also write small notes and place them under rocks also. Most French movie stars also have them on their tombs.
Phillipe Noiret was here also. he had bus tickets placed under rocks (a Jewish thing) and also small notes. A custom was born!
After a while he said it was time to go and wished us a happy visit in Paris. Before leaving he pointed us to Baudelaire and told us of a tomb of a rich gentleman who has an original sculpture by Brancusi (The Kiss) above his tomb. They were all there as he said.
We never did find out where Alfred Dreyfuss was but it was quite a place. I noticed people taking quit breaks from the city, mothers nursing their babies, lovers, and people quietly reading their book. It was definitely more than just a cemetery.
My thoughts drifted off to our “guide”.
Americans are always putting the French down and see them as rude. uncooperative and cowardly. At least that’s what the comedians on TV would have you think. But they also honor their heroes who unlike us are not politicians, or warriors, but artists, writers, actors, both native and adopted and they spend time with them long after their deaths in the beautiful and peaceful Cemetiére du Montparnasse.
We can learn a lot from them