Jim Morrison Isn't Here

photo: flowers in cemetery

One of the Montparnasse cemetery's most
elaborate flower displays today.

Toussaint In Montparnasse

Paris:- Wednesday, 1. November 2000:- Halloween was 'discovered' some years ago by an inquisitive French merchant on the lookout for new merchandize to flog. Over the years its commercial possibilities have seemed to be good, so more of it is deemed to be better.

These days Paris is liberally plastered with Halloween regalia three or four weeks before the end of October, which can be a bit disconcerting to visitors who might have hoped - expressly prayed - that they had escaped it.

Since the French like to think they are logical, but without having any hangups about everything illogical in France, Halloween needs a 'legend' and this has been tacked on to Celtic neighbor, Ireland; which is remote enough to be a great source of new legends in addition to the many ancient ones it already has.

So then, late yesterday there were crowds of kids and adults going around with sooty faces or in costumes, some carrying six-packs of beer. Myphoto: baudelaire monument local café dressed itself up, and last night its staff all wore masks and black shrouds - which they had to take off every five minutes because they were too hot.

Part of Baudelaire's monument; he is actually buried in a tomb on the opposite side of the cemetery.

One customer's dog was quite upset by this, and woofed a lot at Jacquo the waiter, who was wearing a particularly hideous mask with seaweed entangled in its snaggly teeth. Masks, in general, are having a comeback because of all this.

Even though the Halloween 'legend' may be no more than an excuse for adult silliness, it is important to remember that Paris has a long history of costume parties and gigantic public balls. I haven't found out yet why these faded away, but I sense there is a real desire to reinstate Carnival, and Halloween with its costumes is like a foot in the doorway to this.

Personally, I say 'Bah, humbug' to Halloween, but cheer the idea of Carnival making a reappearance. Boulogne-sur-Mer and Nice both have their Carnivals, so there's no reason for Paris not to have one too.

What Paris, and France, do have is Toussaint - All Saint's Day - which is today. This is the day when the French visit the graves of their 'loved ones' - otherwise known as 'the dead' - and leave pots of flowers on them. According to Le Parisien, 70 percent of the French will visit one - or more! - of France's 60,000 cemeteries today.

Other traditions surrounding death such as attending funerals, having wakes afterwards, wearing somber clothing and long periods of mourning have largely fallen by the wayside in modern times.

Yet the French prefer being potted in the earth to cremation, with only 16 percent of families opting for the latter. This costs an average of 25,000 francs; 10,000 more than a cremation. The funeral business as a whole has an annual turnover of 17 billion francs, and employs 20,000 - although there is said to be a shortage of grave diggers.

The history of cemeteries in Paris is long - 2000 years, or more - and is complex. When the city was small, cemeteriesphoto: iron skull tomb decor were attached to parish churches. But expansion of the city was constant most of the time, and cemeteries were constantly relocated, including their occupants - and this has added - some strangeness - to the history.

At some point, some functionary - was it our beloved Baron Haussmann? - decreed that Paris had enough cemeteries. Somehow, although these do not expand, they always have room for one more inhabitant.

A bit of tomb decor, suitable for Halloween.

In a free 'user's guide' published by the city, cemeteries are not even mentioned - other than the Catacombs - because cemeteries are under the jurisdiction of the parks and gardens department. But the city offers organized tours of three: Père-Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse.

For the smaller cemeteries of Belleville, Passy, Vaugirard, Picpus and Montmartre's Saint-Vincent, you have to find your own way.

Three other medium-sized cemeteries are located just inside Paris' ring-road, the dreaded Périphérique. Are they chance locations, or are they simply pragmatic?

Usually posted near a cemetery's entrance, is a map showing where famous people are buried - and these are easy to find in the smaller cemeteries, but can be a real Easter-egg hunt in larger cemeteries like Père-Lachaise.

When I lived out in a western suburb, I routinely took a short-cut through the village's cemetery to catch the train to Paris. It was steeply uphill, and I figured if I was going to have heart attack it made sense to have it at the beginning of an excursion, and have it in the right place.

Now I have the important Montparnasse cemetery between where I live and the center of Montparnasse, and it's a good way to go on foot to avoid the hassle of traffic.

Thinking of the village, I am much better off now, because in addition to the nearby cemetery there are also a lot of close hospitals, and if worst comes to worst, the Santé prison is also handy.

Today, the first thing I notice about the Montparnasse cemetery, is all the cars parked as close to it asphoto: cemetery visitors they can get. In the cemetery it is a 'no cars' day. Most of them are also illegally parked, but it's a national holiday for the parking police ladies too.

Cemeteries within Paris are run by the parks and gardens service.

Since I pass through the cemetery quite often I quickly notice that there are many more people around than usual. And according to the custom of the day, many of the grave sites have received their annual ration of fresh flower displays.

One very old tombstone, which notes the first birth in 1811 and the most recent death in 1990, has a large amount of a single variety of fresh flowers. Another, one I have to look for, is for Alfred Dreyfus and family, and it has none at all.

This is near the cemetery's eastern wall, and an atelier that Picasso had at a time when Dreyfus was still alive overlooks the spot were he now is. Near here also lie Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty's sculptor, and André Citroën. The Baudelaire monument is impressive too, but he is actually buried on the cemetery's opposite side, with the Aupick family.

At another, which it like a little house about the size of a stone phone-booth, an old lady inserts her key in the partly-rusted door, as what appears to be her daughter, grand-daughter and possibly great-grand-daughter look on. Miraculously the door creaks open and the old lady looks inside at her future residence.

The sky is full of dark-bottomed clouds which are being pushed along by breezes that are whirling fallen leaves around. Periodically, a weak sun breaks through, but it is only for seconds at a time. It is proper-mood weather.

Some of the people in the cemetery are not visiting anybody they know because they are carrying maps; doing a tourphoto: flowers for 1811 on this traditional day of visiting the dead.

I can't say I'm a fan of cemeteries, but I've been in them so often in Europe - mostly on idle tours - that I no longer avoid them. Nearly every tomb engraving is a little history.

First date: 1811; latest date: 1990; fresh flowers today.

Today's newspaper also claims that the French would like to have more elaborate funerals again - perhaps to match the eccentricities found in the cemeteries? - and this calls to mind the funeral of Jules Pascin on Saturday, 7. June 1930.

For this all of Paris' art galleries closed; the cortege was so long traffic had to be halted just like for the Friday night roller-rando, and all the artists of both Montparnasse and Montmartre turned out; plus waiters, barmen, musicians, models - everybody; all in tears, all in black suits and dresses of black silk.

All went on foot, under a blazing sun; they walked the five kilometres to the Cimetière Parisien de Saint-Ouen, just north of Montmartre. Pascin's last written words - still in memory - "Adieu Lucy."

A simple little handwritten note is taped to the window of the gatehouse of the Montparnasse cemetery. It says, "Jim Morrison is not here. See him at Père-Lachaise."

My French calendar features all the saints' name days. Today is Toussaint - all Saints Day - and tomorrow is 'Défunts' - the Day of the Dead. After tomorrow it is Saint-Hubert's Day and only 64 days until the beginning of Carnival, even though it is 'not here' either.

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