Archives of the Past
How do I learn about life in this place of death? They say that death is permanent, dead individuals are lost forever, but the mark they leave behind eternally remains. Surrounded, I am surrounded by reminders of the past, tombstones that are slowly disintegrating, showing neglect and thoughtlessness. Grandparents, children, and adults, all lie below my feet. These people who were once living become a monument of the past, simplified into a concrete structure, giving little insight to the world they lived in. Wanderers are only left to imagine what their lives looked like based on the minimal and personal engravings and decorations of these tombstones. Today, I walk around in this space filled with people whose lives I am left to imagine, create, and in a way, once more — depicting a metropolis of never ending creation, history and entity. Through the lives of others, the mark they left behind, and the people they loved, I am able to find the essence of life and the importance of keeping the archives of those who’ve passed, alive. These experiences and people, made their tombstones something more than a monument of death — an insight to their existence.
I walk through the uneven cobblestone roads I begin to organise my thoughts in order to make sense of a life once lived: I can now see a large grave with a statue of a baby girl named Marie Louise Horeau, who died at the age of 11 and a half, three days after her first communion. The grave is delicately ornamented and smooth for the most part. I can decrypt three names on the plaque, however one is written above the other two in big, bold letters ‘MARIE LOUISE HOREAU’. She is buried with two of her sisters who only managed to live for a few months before death clawed them away. Neither of them have had the privilege to grow old or at least live a contentful life as it barely began when it ended. At the age of 11, Marie was unaware of the idea of Death and how sudden it is. It was never explained to her, perhaps on one hand this made it easier to pass away, as she would just go under a never-ending sleep rather than try to fathom the concept of it — being pulled out of her mother’s womb to be innocently placed into the grave. This grave evokes in me a subconscious thought of ‘what would I do if my child died this young?’. I am now absorbed with a sense of gratefulness for my life and health amongst my family and friends— the idea of keeping your loved ones in your mind, where they can live forever.
I notice a grave with fresh flowers and digital photographs decorating it. I read the name; Suzon Garrigues, a 21 year old girl who died only 2 years ago in the Bataclan attacks of November 13th. I get chills at the thought of this girl dying in the prime of her life, at a rock concert, simply living her life. The photographs narrate a happy girl’s life, promenading the streets of Paris, using every small corner as inspiration for her written work. The normality and newness of her grave make her come alive. She was a young adult, who showed a passion for all things which make us feel alive: music, literature, art. And now, here she is: a monument to a tragedy, a symbol representing the other people, like her, whose lives were lost that same night.
As I continue wandering around, I stumble upon a grave from the 1830’s, belonging to Eugenie and her family. She lived from 1801 to 1832, she was only 31 when she passed away. Inside the tomb there is a shelf, two vases and spider webs covering the dead leaves. There is not much I know about her personal life; a tomb stone can only give so much information. I can try and imagine her in the best way that I can. Her life must have been full of sadness. She had a child, I see the plaque with a baby girl’s name, how long she lived and the year she died. It was common during those times, people died in adolescence all the time, especially babies. It must have been a tragedy for her, to lose someone whose life was blossoming and suddenly withered away like a beautiful flower. I wonder how many people have seen her tomb since her death. The empathy they must have felt or have they even stopped to look at her at all, I wonder.
As I time travel in my mind and continually wander, I encounter the boastful grave of Felix Ziem. Staring at this overstated monument, I imagine Ziem as being a citizen of an era, an influencer of an era, and a ninety year old man of an era. Architect at first, his magical hand moving over the canvas hypnotized his viewers. From A Cove with a Sailboat, to View of Istanbul, his intervention in the artistic field blessed the world. Sadly, all of this came to an end, as his death couldn’t go against the law of nature – nothing could stop the whitening of his hair and the carving of wrinkles on his skin. He was living a peaceful life in his small house in Montmartre where he was exposed during his last days to the “Belle Epoque” of France, which took place before World War I. How strange would appear this futuristic world to Ziem, as the epoch in which he lived was defined by the breakthrough of sciences, art, and technology, but also for the economic prosperity that occurred. How strange would it be for him to resurrect in today’s era, seeing at the Pere Lachaise cemetery people using smartphones, people talking about topics completely different from the ones of his time, people dressing with completely new and odd outfits to him, the view of a city that he can now barely recognize – having the feeling of being forever old.
Through this walk around the cemetery, I come to a revelation that in this amalgam of trees, fallen leaves, symbolic buildings, and various tombs, death is not the only one sheltered. While dead people are buried under grass and soil, the living inhabits the surface. That is to say that there’s a coexistence of death with its paradoxical peer: life. Plant stems, trees, leaves, insects, animals, and even generation of people who frequent this place are continually being renewed. Pere Lachaise cemetery is not a mere container of corpses and graves, but a vivid place of frequentations, a layering of two contradictory societies: the living, and the death underneath. Both contribute symbiotically to the making of this cemetery as an archive of the past, as a memoir; while the living pay homage to the dead with gifts or prayers, the dead is a mark of eras and historical events.
We try to imagine them, in every way someone can imagine a person they have never met or seen. Even if they have been forgotten, the acknowledgement of them once living is embedded within our minds as someone who was once a human being, with human emotions and qualities becomes the purpose of a cemetery, even when the visitors are unknown people of the future.
This is the cycle of life, as everything is being renewed with time.
Through my endless wandering, I learn the importance of the coexistence between life and death, the significance of the interactions between the ones who pass by and the others like me here in Père Lachaise. I learn that this place isn’t just for the dead, but for the living. The truth which lies below these intertwining vines, and this cold stone gathers and reminds the living of the twisted reality which they live in, that way, it explodes, blowing up everything beside it, a powerful inexplicable force which motivates them to live a fuller life.