There’s a place where on a weekday you can watch Parisians traverse by foot what would be about eleven US city blocks. They are on their way to the Metro, a hotel district, or the regional train station Gare de Montparnasse. They’ll avoid the main street sidewalks, crowded with tourists. They’ll move with the swiftness of Apollo in Adidas “StanSmiths” on their way to work. For most of that walk they’ll never leave Paris’ second largest cemetery, Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Cimetière du Montparnasse is a walled and partially wooded park of forty seven acres established in 1824. It is most known for its entombment of the illustrious: artists, musicians, writers and theatrical performers of the 19th to our present century. It is also a natural area by inner-city Parisian standards that is lined with linden, ash and maple trees. During the hottest summer on record in Paris I had occasion to roam the park just outside the door of my hotel.
Wildlife & Lunch at the Necropolis
First a brief diversion. I have a peculiar preference for cemeteries as parks. When nearby, they are places that I find to be appropriate for contemplative walking, thinking, writing… and a sack lunch. That’s right, I used to take lunch in places like the Texas State Cemetery which, at the time, was in a very unfashionable and rough section of East Austin. It was walking distance from a commercial film and television studio where I worked (where the rent was cheap). I parked myself on a bench, peeled open the baby carrots and hummus, and proceeded to think and eat in the quiet outdoors. I never considered it disrespectful. I offered my respects and read the stories of the fallen in this sacred place..
I’ve found wildlife and some very strange natural activities in cemeteries. There came foxes from time to time and native birds seemed to like the diversity of habitat and lack of predators. In the early 2000’s I actually discovered feral parrots nesting in the live oaks of the State Cemetery. In older and unfortunately poorly maintained cemeteries, such as the Lutheran Cemetery that gave space to the poor and on the western edge of the Garden District in Baton Rouge, you can find wooded sections rife with foxfire. Foxfire are fungi on fallen trees which actually glow (a phenomenon known as bioluminescence). This place is deeply wooded on the edge of the City Park.
In North Denver’s historic River Oaks cemetery I was harassed by wild turkeys. In Texas’ Round Rock Cemetery there is a sequestered and fully wooded Slave Cemetery, a sad reminder of the inequities in our world. It is full of aging & broken stones with misspellings on nearly every hand carved memorial. One afternoon when walking the main cemetery to find the grave of famed Texas outlaw, Sam Bass, my daughters and I stumbled upon this humbly marked slave section. Don’t judge-they thought finding an outlaw’s memorial was great fun. We ambled reverently into the woodsy section to find innumerable monarch butterflies, their wings folded and pulsing, draped from the leaves and branches of tall scrub oaks above us. It was like a monarch preserve. It was a moment with a divine aspect, it seemed, and added import to an afternoon we’d otherwise spend walking, and securing Happy Meals before visiting a popular playscape nearby. I turned to my daughters and said: “Do you think they are the souls of those buried here?”
La Magie du Montparnasse (The Magic)
I did not take lunch at Cimetière du Montparnasse. There’s a great creperie in nearby Rue Daguerre for takeout, should you wish to lunch in the well maintained surroundings. I did find magic, however. The magic you discover here is pure Parisian romance expressed for modernist artistic traditions and the people of the Left Bank. Here are the graves of Baudelaire (poet), Camille Saint Saens (Composer), Susan Sontag (Cultural Critic), artists Constantin Brancusi and Man Ray. More recently the great singer, songwriter, poet, painter and actor, Serge Gainsbourg, began his rest here in the Jewish section in 1991.
You’ll find filmmakers as well. The title of this essay, btw, is a play on Alan Renais’ renowned art film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” A poetic, although sometimes satirized, masterpiece, the film intercut the private conversations of lovers with graphic newsreel from Hiroshima. It is terribly difficult to watch. More to the point, Renais was laid to rest in Cimetière du Montparnasse in 2014. He lies under a simple affair of a raised horizontal block and a perpendicular headstone.
One of the most arresting features of this place is the playful, sometimes absurdist, tradition of either mounting modernist sculpture to the grave upon installation or adorning it later with spirited decoration. It’s all the product of inspired Parisian mischief mixed with respectful homage. The tourists play along.
Marguerite Duras, who was a prolific novelist and penned the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” is buried here. Her grave is festooned with saucers full of pens, to signify the eternal writer. I can only presume these are replenished regularly by well-wishers.
“Oisseau por Jean-Jacques” contains mixed media, scrap metal and glass. The sculpture rises as a spectacular bird from the tomb of Jean-Jacques Goetzmann. I’m sorry to say that I cannot find much of his biographical details, other than he was a close friend of Niki De Saint Phalle. Saint Phalle was a French-American sculptor and renaissance woman. She created and dedicated the piece to her friend who died prematurely from complications due to AIDS.
I must honor the combined tomb of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone du Beauvoir. It greets you at the main entrance at the Boulevard Edgar-Quintet. I found it at the end of my tour having walked from the back entrance from the hotel near Rue Froideveaux. It is one of the great treasures of the park. A simple, somewhat large, stone which is always covered with lipstick imprints from strangers, tourists, students and undoubtedly, offspring of friends and relatives. They were a complicated couple, this existentialist playwright/philosopher and the leading light of feminist theory. The admiration is clearly expressed for both: two exceptional minds that found a way to live together.
The colors of flowers, gifts and sculptures throughout the cemetery lend a carnival atmosphere. It’s clear that this began as a sober place. Then when Paris was invaded by aritists and modernisitic principles, not the least of which was to bring laughter everywhere, this place was marked by romantics for the transformation that post-Napoleonic city planning couldn’t provide. Color is grafted to everything grey. Flowers are everywhere and thrive in the summer humidity. I walked away with a sense that colors were skillfully matched to the souls of the occupants of the cemetery. I imagined that those who greet the markers choose specific colors and flowers in honor of the vivid personalities and legacies. This is probably ridiculous. But since it felt like magic, I end with this chant.
Cimetière du Montparnasse (The Names of the Flowers of the Cemetery at Montparnasse)
Jean Paul and Simone
burst to lifers
radiators of madness without prejudice
ramblers refusing to be abridged
sable and saffron
Lovers and laughers
prolific champions of nuisance-making noise
sparking kindlers in pitch-dark dwellings.
Here, the grey day is excited
by vivid, provoking intruders.
Traverse the angled footway,
leave lipstick prints on headstones, sculpted faces,
then hurry to quarters, cafes, muted places
or stay for the piercing peal of Notre Dames Des Champs
let vines and blossoms embrace you along their rambling romp.