Curiosity and the Veneration of the Dead at Père Lachaise

By Kathrine Jackson

In late July this year, I found myself two metro stops from Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  A Paris visit had been tagged on to a trip to Disneyland Paris organised by my partner’s parents to celebrate their retirement. No specific plans were made until we arrived at our apartment. I noticed that we were within walking distance of Père Lachaise cemetery where I remembered that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was buried. I also recalled that his grave had become a site of veneration or pilgrimage for those that connected with both the man and his work. My PhD focused partly upon the Pre-Raphaelites so I had read The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and a selection of his poetry: I was also aware of the aestheticism movement. However, I did not have a personal link to Wilde, even if I could appreciate his work. Curiosity and opportunity got the better of me and I decided to go and have a look.

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Pére Lachaise map of the graves

Père Lachaise was opened in 1804. However, it was considered to be too far away from the city and was not immediately popular. The bringing of the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière proved to be a marketing success and the cemetery began to grow in popularity.  Now it houses over one million human remains. Other Victorians of note buried there (according to its official website) are: Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Frédéric Chopin (1810 -1849), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – to name a few. As anyone who has visited the cemetery or similar grand cemeteries like Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Highgate in London or Forest Lawn in Glendale, California will appreciate, it has a strange kind of beauty. You can wander down corridors filled with Neo-Classical, Gothic and Post-Modern architecture. To the discerning eye it is a feast of artistic traditions and history and yet it is a city for the dead – and now, more often than not, the rich. I responded with a mixture of childish wonder at the strange environment (this is the first cemetery that I have visited as a tourist) and disgust. I was unsettled by the prospect of a million rotting bodies and the opulence of their memorials.

It’s potentially a nice thought to be buried alongside Oscar Wilde and other French cultural dignitaries. The only problem is that the standard lease of a plot is just 30 years and there is a waiting list – you also have to either have lived or died in Paris. Wilde did fit this bill. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, but spent periods of his life in Paris and died penniless in the city in 1900. Three years before Wilde’s death, broken from his imprisonment in Reading Gaol and with British Aestheticism drawing to a close, he returned to Paris to live as an exile on the continent. He was initially buried in Bagneaux Cemetery but was transferred to Père Lachaise in 1909, though his tomb was not erected until 1914.

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Wilde’s grave

Unlike other grave sites within the cemetery, Wilde’s has been protected by a glass casing since 2011 because of the tradition, started in 1900, of kissing the monument with red lipstick and writing messages directly onto it instead of leaving billets doux. The tourists neither realised nor cared that the constant cleaning brought on by this was disintegrating the stone work. Although I completely understand and respect the decision of Wilde’s family to put up the encasement, it has the effect of making the viewer feel removed from the object. There is more of a feeling of museum than monument, which perhaps prefigures its eventual fate (if it is deemed important enough) to be saved for posterity. Ironically, the original sketches for the tomb are thought to have been derived from the Winged Assyrian Bulls, currently held in the British Museum in London. However, its final version sculpted by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) features a crucified angel-like figure that is wearing an elaborate headdress.

The back of the sculpture has lines inscribed from The Ballad of Reading Goal, written by Wilde in 1898 during his period of exile in France.

Wilde's grave

Wilde’s grave

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

It’s easy to see why these words still resonate to the visitors of Wilde’s monument. Yet, I’m not sure that they meant much to me and neither did the gravesite – beyond satisfying my own curiosity. Which leads to the final question, what did I get from the experience of going to Père Lachaise? Mostly, I was interested in people watching; noting how they reacted to the tombstones of people that they were likely to have never met. Some people were solemn and pious, there were those mainly interested in taking photos whilst others seemed bemused as they were route marched round by an organised tour. Like Baudelaire’s Flâneur, Walt Whitman or Dickens, transposed from the streets, I hungrily observed the physical and emotional responses of others to this unusual environment on the periphery of the metropolis. kathy blog 4 Yet, I also wanted to take in the experience myself– to just see how I would react – and isn’t this partly why we read in the first place? There is an almost symbiotic relationship between reading and literary tourism in which the physical and intellectual experience of tourism informs and influences reading, and vice versa.  However, I am yet to find out how my experience of visiting Wilde’s grave site will influence my future reading of his work. Perhaps I will start to envisage his voice as the uncanny angel-creature.

References

Alberge, Dalya, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Lipstick Covered Tomb to be Protected’, The Observer, 27 November 2011.  http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/nov/27/oscar-wilde-grave-paris-cemetery [Accessed on 14th August 2015].

Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

‘Oscar Wilde’, Poet’s Graves http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/wilde.htm [Accessed on 14 August 2015].

Raby, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, London: Smithers, 1898.

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