The cemeteries of Paris
The first part of a reflection on my time roaming among Paris' communities of the departed
[Cimetière du Nord, or more commonly de Montmartre]
Over the years I spent in Paris on various research projects, during grad school and then during my first two sabbatical leaves after being tenured, I came to know the Parisian cemeteries well. I am that kind of person. Every day, when I walk home from campus, I cut through the Lewisburg cemetery and visit with old friends there. (Perhaps I’ll discuss a few of them later).
I even thought for a time that I would write a book about my journeys in the cemeteries of Paris. Sartre spoke, in his last interviews with Simone de Beauvoir, I believe, about the exquisite pleasure of thinking not about the books one has written, not the books one is actively engaged in writing, nor even the books one has embarked on formal planning to write in the near future, but the books one imagines one might write, some day, later, and which exist currently only as deliciously vague snatches of lazily amorphous ideas.
This was one of my books of this kind. Who knows, if I get the time, I may yet turn to it…
I admit that I lost a little enthusiasm for the project when I discovered that a scholar named Mark Taylor had already done a book that dealt with one of the pieces of my imagined book: the role played by looking for the graves of other writers and intellectuals, artists, and other such figures who have inspired me. I did a fair amount of that in Paris, and I’ll have a few images to share along those lines.
But what Taylor did was not really the book I imagined I would one day write. That book would be an account of my bond to dead philosophers and novelists, yes, but it would also explore my relationship to Paris more generally, in all its mythological symbolism and everyday bustle and adventure, and with my ongoing struggle to figure out how to come to terms with the fact that a place like these small, quiet communities inside the vibrant city of Paris that I felt so compelled to visit would one day, inevitably, be my permanent abode too.
During one of my ‘90s stays in Paris, I found this book, if memory serves, in one of the bookstores in the Latin Quarter:
It became a solid orienting map for me, especially for the Paris places of the dead outside of the “Big Three” of Père Lachaise, Montmartre, and Montparnasse, all of which I already knew well. And it was full of splendid images, many of the objects of which I tracked down in the real world.
Here are landscape views of a few of the relevant sites to begin the journey (see also the one serving as the header).
Cimetière de Gentilly