garden tales from a Brit abroad
The title of this post is poet Charles Baudelaire’s description of a graveyard. His own tombstone can be found in the cemetery in Montparnasse.
Opened in 1824, Montparnasse was one of three rural burial grounds created for Paris after the closure of the capital’s squalid urban cemeteries, where unmarked, unmourned bodies had lain thirty deep.
Now part of the busy 14th arrondissement, the site once lay outside the city walls, and for many years had been home to three farms. Its oldest feature is the tower to the west, which was built in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind-driven flour mill.
After the Revolution, the area became known for its popular revelries, and the windmill was converted to a guinguette, a tricky word to translate, but which means a place in the Paris suburbs for eating, dancing and, perhaps above all, drinking local wine on weekends and holidays. Once within the new cemetery, the mill’s blades were removed and it became the home of the warden. Nowadays it is empty.
Today was my first visit to the Montparnasse cemetery, and I found myself comparing it with Père Lachaise, which I know well. Despite its name, Montparnasse does not share the elevated position of its better-known cousin in the 20th. The land is resolutely flat and the cemetery hemmed in by the buildings that surround it, most strikingly the Tour Montparnasse just to its west. It is hidden behind walls and fences, and only reveals itself as a vast burial ground after the visitor has found the main entrance on boulevard Edgar Quinet.
In style it also shares little with the picturesque layout of Père Lachaise. Montparnasse immediately feels more classically French, with clipped hedges, geometrically arranged graves and long, straight, tree-lined allées. It is also less sumptuous, with simpler monuments and fewer of the elaborate, costly chapels that form much of the character of Père Lachaise.
Montparnasse today was strikingly flower-filled: everywhere were pots and tubs of fat chrysanthemums, pink cyclamen, heathers, and the last of the summer’s daisies. Combined with the many fallen leaves and patches of green moss grown luscious in the recent rains, they gave the cemetery a perfect sense of autumnal richness, with its promise of cold, barren winter to come. It reminded me of Baudelaire’s Chant d’automne.
Recently I heard a talk by Pascal-Hervé Daniel, who manages all of the Paris cemeteries. He spoke of the problems with theft at Montparnasse and elsewhere. Previously thieves used to take the sculptures and sell them as works of art, but now there is little call for busts of long-dead and oft-forgotten figures. Thieves are instead collecting metal features from the graves and melting them down for sale. It means recovery of the stolen artifacts is now often impossible, and the beautifully worked metal pieces are lost forever.
We learnt from M. Daniel that, from the outset, the graves at Montparnasse were intended to be permanently owned and cared for by the families whose members were interred there: in creating these new rural cemeteries, Napoleon had promised that people would be able to buy large burial plots “ownership of which will be assured, whatever may befall, for time immemorial.” But occasionally families no longer wish to keep up the grave, or there is no representative of the family left, and then the city will begin a long process to reclaim the plot and restore or remove its memorial. I saw one sad example of this today.