No one here gets out alive

Susan Flanagan
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Jim Morrison’s grave has changed dramatically since the ’80s

My favourite place in Paris is not Sacré-Coeur Basilica with its white dome towering over Montmartre, nor is it the Arc de Triomphe or the Champs Élysées (thank you to Mme Rice for beating that correct spelling into me).

My favourite spot in Paris is Père Lachaise cemetery, a calming quiet place far from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It is a massive oasis in the 20th arrondissement, a short subway ride from Hotel St Paul where we stayed.

It is wet and cold when we leave our hotel for a brisk walk across the Seine, past the bouquinists that line the stone walls near Notre Dame Gothic Cathedral which sits like a two-towered sentinel on Ile de la Cité in the middle of the river.

We take a swing by the Eiffel Tower which, despite the weather, is packed with tourists and pickpockets alike. We don’t even consider taking the elevator up and the crowd waiting to purchase tickets to walk up the steps look like they’ll be there well into the afternoon.

We’ve already both been to the top of the tower, albeit on separate trips, so we decide to forgo the lineup and instead enjoy a $10 miniature espresso and a $20 Peche Melba (ice cream dessert invented for Lady Melba, the same opera singer who inspired Melba Toast — she liked her toast burned without butter, thank you very much) and ponder our options.

Like the Eiffel Tower, my husband and I had already visited Père Lachaise before we knew each other back in the ’80s. But because we both agreed it is the most interesting place in Paris, we hopped on the ever-efficient and spotlessly clean Metropolitan to see it again.

A million dead

To say that Père Lachaise is sprawling is an understatement. If you’ve been to the cemetery in St-Pierre, you have an idea on a hundredth scale of what Père Lachaise is like. More than 70,000 raised tombs with ceramic glass flowers and framed photos of more than a million deceased people. Père Lachaise makes Holy Sepulchre on Topsail Road look like a garden on Bond Street. Père Lachaise is so big you need to pack water and a snack so you’ll survive the seemingly endless multilevels of tombs and monuments. Many people arrive by the Gambetta Metro station so they’ll be able to walk downhill as opposed to uphill like we did. Wherever you choose to enter, one thing is certain: you need comfortable walking shoes to navigate the 100-plus acres of above-ground tombs. You will be sure to get lost.

As soon as you arrive at the Père Lachaise metro stop, you’re within a couple of minutes’ walk to the gate that will bring you into the walled 200-year-old cemetery. If I hadn’t been with my human GPS of a husband, I definitely would have bought a map from the vendor by the gate. But with my sniffer-dog partner there was no need. He took one look at a map on a sign and directed us through a maze of tombs, including those of Frédéric Chopin, the pianist, and French writers Balzac and Proust. We even passed a monument for Napoleon’s right-hand man, Marshal Ney, who was executed by firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815, an act that greatly upset the French people.

Some of the most famous poets and politicians, philosophers and painters in the world are buried within these walls, but who did we come to see? A booze-swilling American rock star who overdosed in a Paris apartment in 1971 and, because his body was only identified by his girlfriend and then whisked away, some fans then and now believe he’s still alive.

James Douglas Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was born Dec. 8, 1943, the same year as Janis Joplin and the year after Jimi Hendrix. He would be 70 if he were around today.

The first time I visited his grave back in 1987, it wasn’t as hard to find as it is today. Once we got within 500 metres of it, graffiti pointed the way. “This way to the Morrison Hotel.” “Break on Through to the Other Side.” “Light my Fire.”

Those painted lyrics are a thing of the past, however, and I assume had cemetery officials ever imagined that more than one million tourists would flock to the cemetery each year to make their way to Jim Morrison’s grave, they most likely would never have allowed his remains to have been buried within their walls.

But that first time, you followed the paint and the flowers until you came to a relatively non-descript headstone, not a huge above-ground tomb, like many of the other plots. A bust of Morrison’s head and shoulders, covered, like everything else in the vicinity, with many layers of spray paint, sat in front. Part of his nose had been chipped off, perhaps by an over-zealous fan.

People with flowers in their hair lay back singing Doors tunes while one guy strummed guitar. They sipped wine and took long drags on cigarettes. Die-hard hippies from the ’70s. This was their pilgrimage, and I guess for a 20-year-old backpacking through Europe for the first time, it was mine, too.

A couple of years later, I was teaching in Tarbes near Lourdes in the south of France when my sister, who lived in Aberdeen, decided to meet me in Paris for Easter. Although she was not a Doors fan, I convinced her to visit Père Lachaise. This time when we reached the gate, we were actually frisked by a cemetery official who was looking for spray paint, cans of paint and wine bottles.

“Pas de picnic,” he said, a stern look on his face, before waving us into the inner reaches of the famous dead.

I don’t think my sister, Marie, had expected to see the huge tree-lined avenues, filled with marble statues and family shrines. A huge war memorial and monument to victims of the Holocaust are just as impressive as the individual tombs that cover what is claimed to be the most-visited cemetery in the world.

Marie had her trusty Canon AE-1 camera and took reams of film. I remember we stopped en route to see Edith Piaf, the French chanteuse who was named after Edith Cavell, the British nurse who helped soldiers on both sides (we have a mountain named after her near Jasper). The surname Piaf, which means sparrow, was given to her by a promoter because of her small size and skittishness. She has a fascinating life story.

Abandoned by her mother and raised for a time by prostitutes who pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage which cured her of childhood blindness, Piaf was singing in the street, alongside her acrobat father, by the time she was 14. Most famous for her song “La Vie en Rose,” Piaf did not die in Paris, but rather on the Riviera. Her body was brought to Paris in secret so her fans would believe she died in her hometown.

We saw Molière, the French playwright who wrote the comedy “Tartuffe” (1664); La Fontaine, writer of fables, whose wife is said to have brought him 20,000 books as dowry; and Lalique, the man famous for his glass chandeliers.

By the time my sister and I reached Morrison’s grave, you could only see faint signs of graffiti on surrounding graves. It had been pressure washed off. This was a good thing, I remember thinking — it was time visitors showed some respect to the other family plots that surrounded their dead rock star.

People were still sitting around smoking and drinking as if only an hour, and not years, had passed since I last saw them. They were singing “L.A. woman, Sunday afternoon, drive through your suburbs into your blues.” It was a touch more muted than in ’87 but had the same general feel. There was no sign of Morrison’s noseless bust.

Flash forward

Now I am curious to see how much has changed in the intervening 25 years since that visit. I can see that the headstone has been replaced and now sports a brass plaque. My husband comments on the lack of graffiti. Not a hint. I notice the lack of music. There are people around snapping pictures, but Jim Morrison’s grave, and those nearest his, are surrounded by a metal barricade, like you’d see around a concert site. Tourists lean over the fence to snap a pic or throw in a rose. They don’t seem to linger. A nearby pole covered with bamboo provides a place to leave notes. It doesn’t have the same commune feel it once had.

We take a look but also don’t linger. We have been here before and are weary now. Before leaving, we decide to head towards one final gravesite — the tomb of the Irish author Oscar Wilde, famous for his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) and his one novel “The picture of Dorian Gray” (1890).  Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who after spending two years in prison for gross indecency (things went downhill for him after he sued his lover’s father for libel), moved to Paris where he died in 1900. Wilde’s grave has gone under as much of a transformation as Morrison’s. It is now encased in glass and despite signs asking visitors to be respectful, we see lipstick marks high up above the glass indicating that tourists have climbed on other graves to kiss the famed author.

We bid adieu to Oscar and luckily don’t have to make our way back to either the Père Lachaise or Gambetta Metro stops. The Philippe Auguste Metro station is now closer and gets us back to our hotel for a well-needed rest.

Dirty old town

My memories of Paris in the ’80s were that of a dirty metropolis. Now that I’m home in St. John’s looking at endless masses of discarded trash on riverbeds, walking trails and roadsides, however, I can only dream that our city will one day be as clean as Paris. I hope everyone will grab a pair of gloves and a bag and join in the St. John’s Spring Clean Up campaign and get out there to make our city shine.

Organizations: Gothic Cathedral, Canon AE

Geographic location: Paris, Notre Dame, Topsail Road Bond Street Europe Tarbes Lourdes France Aberdeen Edith Cavell Jasper L.A.

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