Day 5 – Thursday
Today was our Day of the Dead. We slept late and then took the Metro to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery to visit the graves of some of our favorite people and celebrities. The cemetery is an enormous walled city of tombs. There are so many different styles, from simple flat stones covering the whole grave to enormous edifices. Nearly every available space is covered in some kind of stone marker or mausoleum. It was the first day we had any sunshine, and the birds were singing, which was a welcome relief after all of the sirens on the Rue St Jacques where we are staying. I imagine that the cemetery is creepy at night with all of the different sized tombs casting shadows, but today it was beautiful. There are many newer burials. Most of the time the remains are removed after 20 years to make way for new burials. Many of the tombs were family tombs. We bought a map, which was wise, and Julie led us straight to the tomb of Heloise and Abelard. This is what I came to see. They were two of the best theologians in the history of Christianity, although only Abelard was recognized as such. I studied him in graduate school, and I always include him in my lectures in the Christian Tradition class. Such a tragic and beautiful life. The best part of his life was Heloise who loved him with intense passion even after he was emasculated by her uncle and guardian. At one point Heloise and her nuns were evicted from their cloister and Abelard gave his home to them. He ended his wandering at the Cluny Monastery where Peter the Venerable, perhaps the most humane man of the Middle Ages, gave him shelter and let him teach the young monks. When Abelard died, Peter the Venerable sent his body to Heloise. When she died, the nuns broke tradition and buried her with him. They’ve been moved a couple of times and now lie under a beautiful faux gothic chapel. After that we found the grave of my favorite 19th century illustrator, Gustave Dore, and went on a quest to find my daughter’s favorite artist Modigliani. Of course we stopped by Jim Morrison (of the Doors), Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Bizet, and Serat. I was surprised by the monuments to victims of the holocaust that were not mentioned in the guidebook or marked on the map. Very moving. I was also surprised by how beautiful the crematorium in the center of the cemetery is.
We had a nice Panini near the cemetery and then took the Metro to the catacombs of Paris. There has been a rail strike in Paris this week, and it just happened that the square near the catacombs was the scene of a major labor rally. At first we thought it was some kind of street fair since there were several carts serving street food (smelled great) and beverages. There was music everywhere and a festival vibe, but there were clearly angry political speeches and people with protest signs. We figured out it was connected to the strike. The good news for us is that the line was very short at the catacombs. We had tried to go on Tuesday and it was a nightmare, but today was only a ten minute wait. The catacombs are not all like those in Italy. Those catacombs were dug in the limestone for the expressed purpose of burial, and the newer graves are in the lowest sections. The catacombs of Paris were actually tunnels dug by the government in the 19th century to manage the foundations of the growing city of Paris after some buildings had collapses. There are miles and miles of carefully crafted tunnels throughout the city. But what makes them famous is that the government decided that the city’s cemeteries had become a health hazard. About 150 cemeteries and charnel houses were emptied and the bones carefully placed in the catacombs. Ancient, brown femurs stacked like cord wood with a row of skulls, and then other bones. At times both sides of the tunnel are nothing but human remains and various inscriptions from the Bible and other ancient literature reminding us to remember our own mortality. Macabre, yes, but also deeply moving as you look on the last remains of thousands of Parisians and remember that they once lived, labored, and loved just as we do. Each bone was carefully placed in these catacombs by people born generations after the owner had died, and we today walk along the paths of the dead. The stairs leading up into the land of the living were steep, narrow, and circular, which also was a reminder of how hard it is to make it through this thing called life. It was with joy that we felt the cool breeze on our faces, happy to be alive.
We took the train to the Luxembourg Gardens where Cosette and Marius fell in love in Les Miserables (when he thought her named was Ursula) and refreshed ourselves with an ice cream rosette of seven flavors. Then into the Pantheon, which was to have been the church of St Genevieve. It is a beautiful building in its own right, with a fabulous dome under which Foucault’s famous pendulum swings to prove that the world rotates. We visited the crypt where rest the bones of some other heroes – especially Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Madame Curie. After honoring the dead and remembering the great things they did for the human race, we wandered past the Sorbonne and enjoyed fondue. That’s just cheese and bread, my friend.