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The Quick and the Dead

Street life in Paris, with couples everywhere kissing and holding hands, is so life-affirming that it makes any interest in death seem out of place. Why would anyone want to sacrifice a moment of the pulsating vitality in the boulevards and bistros to visit a cemetery?


In my case, it was a social call. I wanted to visit the most exclusive underground club in Paris, le cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, to make a pilgrimage to the Who's Who of celebrated writers, artists, poets and musicians buried there. During previous visits to the City of Light and lovers there was so much to see and do that I never found time for cemeteries.

"You don't find time, you make time," a little voice from a motivational seminar reminded me, and off I went. Now that I have strolled the cobblestone byways of the fabled city of the dead, I know that is where I want to be on the apocalyptic Judgment Day, heaven forbid. Can you imagine people like Jim Morrison ('60s pop icon, The Doors -- Light My Fire) rising up out of his tomb beside the likes of Abelarde and Heloise, Yves Montand, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Honore de Balzac, Georges Bizet or Jean-Baptiste Moliere?

Fans still flock to the tomb of pop icon James Douglas Morrison who died in Paris on July 3, 1971. Copyright: Kathryn MeansMorrison, who popularized the line from English poet William Blake that "Some are born to endless night," gets plenty of company during his own endless night. His grave is the most heavily visited of all. The day I stopped by to see what all the fuss was about, a small crowd of grizzled rock-'n'-rollers mingled with eager, unlined faces at the foot of their dead idol's monument. I asked a backpacking fan from Germany why he and his friends had come to bring bottles of wine and flowers and the answer, delivered with a nonchalant shrug in lightly accented English was, "We're soaking up the vibes." The bust from Morrison's grave was stolen years ago and for a long time his monument was defaced with graffiti. It has been cleaned up and is under 24-hour guard.

With "cemetery chic" the latest home and garden decorating trend, security has been tightened at cemeteries everywhere to prevent the loss of benches, urns and statuary.

Oscar Wilde's monument is expected to draw huge crowds during the centennial of his death in the year 2000. Copyright: Kathryn MeansNext year is the centennial of Oscar Wilde's death and a huge throng is expected to pay homage at his art moderne monument. The Dublin-born writer, whose homosexuality scandalized Victorian society, died in disgrace in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46. (Morrison was only 27.)

The sarcophagus of composer Frederic Chopin, guarded by a sculpted angel, gets its share of potted plants, candles and Polish coins. Among others who attract a steady stream of visitors are writer Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas, actress Simone Signoret, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and glassmaker Rene Lalique. Art lovers are drawn to the graves of Camille Pisarro, Jean Auguste Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Louis David, Amedeo Modigliani and George Seurat.

The French, who take the pleasures of life seriously, are also serious about life hereafter. Francois Mitterand, a former French president, is said to have remarked that "He who loves death, loves life." Mitterand's own love of life -- and women -- took an ironic twist when his mistress and her daughter stood side by side with his wife and family at his gravesite during the burial ceremony in a gravesite near his native village. An agnostic, his Requiem Mass was presided over by a Catholic cardinal.

Pere-Lachaise is one of three famous cemeteries in Paris. Montparnasse and Montmartre have some famous corpses as well. The three cemeteries were built in the early 19th century after a decree was passed making it illegal to bury anyone in churches because with all the plagues, rotting corpses were considered unhealthy.

Pere-Lachaise captured the romantic sensibilities of the Victorians. Queen Victoria was obsessed with death after the demise of her beloved Prince Albert. Widows like her announced their affliction by wearing widow's weeds and mourning rings. They could drape their homes in crepe and throw themselves on the departed's grave to weep.

At the time it was built, Pere-Lachaise was so far from the city that Parisians were reluctant to make the trek with a horse-drawn hearse followed by mourners on foot, so Napoleon put his PR people to work to drum up business. They came up with the idea that if some famous people were buried there, others would follow. To speed the process along, they acquired the remains of celebrities who had died long ago and reburied them in Pere-Lachaise. Abelarde and Heloise, who died in the 12th century, were among the first to be re-interred.

A backpacker takes photos of singer Edith Piaf's family monument. Copyright: Kathryn MeansOnce the farm of Father Lachaise, confessor to Louis XIV, the cemetery sits on 118 acres of prime real estate about an hour's drive east from the center of Paris where the Avenue de la Republique intersects Boulevard Menilmontant and becomes Avenue Gambetta. I took the Paris Metro rather than risk spending a whole morning snarled in traffic inside a taxicab with a ticking meter.

Today, only an upscale subdivision would be laid out with such care. Napoleon's ministers were fortunate in their selection of an architect for the project, Alexander Brongniart. He designed the cemetery to resemble an English garden on a country estate and incorporated the hillside paths the Jesuits loved to wander when they owned the property .Today Pere-Lachaise resembles a beautifully landscaped miniature city with cobblestones and pathways where visitors can stroll in deep contemplation of their own mortality. The quintessential tree of mourning, the weeping willow, is frequently found among the cypress trees and elders. Sweet-smelling flowers like roses, lilacs, honeysuckle and jasmine were planted to masque the odor of death.

Skeletal figures atop the Buchenwald monument are a grim reminder of the Holocaust. Copyright: Kathryn MeansThe architecture of the tombs in Pere-Lachaise ranges from simple headstones to sumptuous monuments to eye-catching sculptures such as the memorial to the Buchenwald concentration camp with three skeletal figures holding hands.

All of the monuments constructed before 1900 are being preserved as historical artifacts for future generations to study and enjoy. Not everyone buried at Pere-Lachaise reposes beneath an impressive monument. A bleak wall of boxes contains the ashes of Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Max Ernst, Richard Wright and others who were cremated.

On the morning of my visit, gusts of chilly wind danced down the winding paths. Tiny buds decorated the deciduous trees and bulbs pushed through the soil. I was reminded of the passage of the seasons and the cycle of death and rebirth.

The hallowed ground of Pere-Lachaise is also high ground. The final scene in "Le Pere Goriot," a novel by Balzac published in 1834, describes the view. "Thus left alone, Rastignac walked a few steps to the highest part of the cemetery and saw Paris spread out below on both banks of the winding Seine. Lights were beginning to twinkle here and there. His gaze fixed almost avidly between the column of the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he had wished to gain."

I could easily imagine a panorama of that splendid world, though the trees and landscaping now block some of the view.

When you go:

The main entrance to Le cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise is on Boulevard de Menilmontant, 75020 Paris, Ph: The cemetery is open March 16 to Nov. 5, weekdays 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays, 8:30-6 p.m., Sundays, 9-6; Nov. 6 to March 15, weekdays 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturdays, 8:30-5:30, Sundays, 9-5:30.

Metro: Pere-Lachaise or Gambetta stations.

Jim Morrison is buried in Division 6, (second row, grave number 5). Cremated remains of famous people are stored in the Colombarium, near the Gambetta entrance.

Maps showing the location of the more famous gravesites and posters of Jim Morrison and other memorabilia can be purchased in nearby flower shops. For a list of where famous authors are buried, including those at Pere-Lachaise, go to www.findagrave.com

The policy for visitors: take only photos; leave only flowers.