I have always had a thing for old cemeteries.
Call it morbid curiosity, a lust for reality, or just another beat from a romantic heart, but there is something oddly relaxing and reassuring about old burial grounds.
Located in the 20th arrondissement, Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris is notably the most visited cemetery in the world. Opened in 1804, the 44-hectare cemetery contains roughly 70 000 tombs of people who either lived or died in Paris.
However, visiting this famous cemetery was more than just a stroll through beautiful gardens for me, it was a return to my cultural icon tourism roots. In London, I visited the site where T. Rex glam-god Marc Bolan smashed his car into a tree and was killed. In Joshua Tree, I visited the hotel where Americana musician Gram Parsons overdosed. In Bethel, I visited the farm where 100 000 fans congregated in 1969 for Woodstock. And like, so much more.
So, during my first time ever in Paris, it was high on my radar to visit the resting places of some major cultural icons – Mr Mojo Risin’; Jim Morrison, Irish literary legend Oscar Wilde, and the Mother Goose of Montparnasse; Gertrude Stein.
Like millions of other people on this planet, I have been a Doors fan since my early teens; no doubt due in part to Jim Morrison’s poetic drunken ramblings, sensual swagger, and lonely mystique. In fact, in May of last year, I headed out to Venice Beach, California to walk on the beach where Jim would oft write poems and eventually meet future Doors organ player Ray Manzarek.
On March 11, 1971, almost as soon as recording for the Doors’ upcoming album L.A. Woman was completed, Jim left the states to go on sabbatical in Paris with longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson. He wasn’t well, and was looking do some soul-searching and get back on his feet both emotionally and creatively.
However, at the time, Paris was in the thralls of a heroin epidemic, and Jim soon fell into his readily-available old destructive habits. On July 3, 1971, at the age of 27, Jim Morrison was found dead due to heart failure in his No. 17 Rue Beautreillis bathtub.
I was born exactly 20 years later, but the story of that coincidence is for another time.
My pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery was made with my friend and fellow Pamela Des Barres’ doll, Trellawny.
Fittingly, Trellawny and I met in 2012 during a women’s memoir-writing workshop put on by famous groupie, actress, and writer, Pamela Des Barres (Miss P). In the late 1960’s, Pamela lived near Jim in Laurel Canyon for a short while, and even made out with him backstage at a Doors gig in Los Angeles.
With our trusty map in hand it didn’t take Trellawny and I long to find Jim’s grave in the 6th Division, especially given that a flock of groupie/tourists were already there.
We waited our turn to get ourselves to the front of the fence where we would have an unobstructed view of the grave, but just as we did another tourists’ phone spoke up and indicated, “your destination is on the left.”
Yes, someone Google Mapped Jim Morrison’s grave. Tourist of the year award, right here.
Oscar Wilde’s tomb in the 89th Division of Père Lachaise Cemetery is covered in lipstick kisses.
After receiving an improperly treated ear injury while in Reading Gaol, Wilde, the author of renowned works such as The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, contracted infections which led to acute meningitis. He died in Paris on November 30, 1900 at age 46.
However, although Wilde died in 1900, his remains were not interred at Père Lachaise until 1909, and the Jacob Epstein-sculpted tomb was not added to the site until 1914. Since the 1990’s, hoards of fans have been visiting the tomb of Oscar Wilde and leaving behind a lipstick kiss on it, so much so that the lipstick actually began to erode the sculpture.
In 2011, a glass barrier was put up barring people from kissing the tomb directly, but it hasn’t stopped them from simply leaving a kiss on the barrier.
The epitaph on the tomb is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
Have you ever seen the movie Midnight In Paris? Well, it’s my absolute favorite Woody Allen-directed film in which the protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson) is a writer visiting Paris who is transported back to the 1920’s every night when the clock strikes 00:00. During his visits to the Roaring 20’s, Gil meets prominent figures of The Lost Generation including F.Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston & Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Cole Porter (Yvez Heck), and, wait for it… Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).
Gertrude Stein, born in 1874, was an American author, poet, and the owner of an artistic and literary salon. The salon, located at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, is where she would host and inspire expat creatives such as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson.
Additionally, Stein is credited with helping launch the careers of famous artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as coining the term “The Lost Generation.” Her own works include Tender Buttons, The Making of Americans, and Paris France.
Stein died in 1946 after having surgery for stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine and is buried in the 94th Division of Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Her last words were spoken to her longtime partner, Alice Toklas:
“What is the answer?” When Toklas replied to Stein that there was no answer, Stein replied, “Then, there is no question!”
During our stroll through the absolutely gorgeous cemetery grounds, we stopped by the resting places of other prominent figures such as painter Seurat and chanteuse Edith Piaf.
Yet, even if I didn’t have cultural icons to visit, I would have stopped by Père Lachaise Cemetery for an afternoon in a heartbeat regardless. Taking a long, peaceful walk through the beautifully gothic grounds would be reason enough to go there.
The delicate tombs of Parisians gone by, the grey graves set against a backdrop of lush nature; what’s not to love?
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Have you ever been to Père Lachaise Cemetery? Who did you visit?
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