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Catching Sunsets in the Underworld

The streets in the city of the dead are lined thickly with trees and uncomfortably silent. There are hedges filled with flowers and vines climbing everywhere. Yet the birds remain mute, instinctively knowing they must not make music here. I am trying to put myself back together after the death of a friend. I have come to Paris, France because it is the only destination where I can feel free to wallow in sadness. Paris was also my friend’s home for many years, a place where he felt inspired. Paris without him is unthinkable. Although I walk its streets, I do not feel a part of it. The city goes on around me, but I cannot move. I am in some other reality where time has stopped and everything is broken, watching incomprehensibly as the world rushes by. I need a place where I can push a pause button and hold everything in abeyance. So I travel to Paris’ largest cemetery Père Lachaise, where the flowers bloom, but the birds are silent.

I am one with the drooping mourners here. They are forever grieving in stone, the weeping angels watching carefully over ancient tombstones. “Forever” is not just a word written in epitaphs that echoes the death knell at Père Lachaise, it is a state of being. I wonder if I will also forever feel that a part of me is missing now that my friend is gone. The city of the dead at Père Lachaise is built exactly like the living city, with streets and intersections, fenced mansions and tiny chapels, park benches and small gardens. But there is one difference. There will be no more new streets or new mausoleums constructed. There are no new experiences to be found here. I ramble along the avenues observing all those who came to this final resting spot and realize that despite being among the dead, I cannot mitigate my grief in their presence. In spite of the tranquility and the beauteous poetry, I resent the verdant growing gardens and sun dappled leaves. They seem too happy here, and I cannot keep their company.

As soon as I leave the gates of Père Lachaise, the noise of Paris assaults me. France’s capital is not a dense metropolis or a clamorous one, yet I cannot stomach its joie de vivre at the moment. Every canoodling couple and convivial coterie jars against my mood. I must escape to someplace out of the light, somewhere deep and dark and soundless.

“Like the ghosts of forgotten Parisians, I somnambulate my way across town to a far different underworld.”

Deep underneath the ancient gates of Paris lie a network of tunnels filled with millions of bones. The Catacombs are a very different cemetery from Père Lachaise: there are no tombstones, no gardens, and no sunlight. In fact there is barely any light by which to see the hundreds upon hundreds of skeletons piled on top of one another. No record or memoriam of the deceased exists inside the vast crypt, only the eerie sound of water droplets falling upon lifeless remains. The stark reality of human life strikes me within the oppressive ossuary. Death comes for us all turning our lives into a collection of bones and dust at the end.

In mourning the passing of my friend, I am not only lamenting his absence, but also bewailing my last chapter in the story of this world. If death is the great equalizer, then the lives we live in-between only matter to those we leave behind. My sorrow over Daniel’s death made me feel that I must go into the depths of the deepest pit to lick my wounds in silence. Now that I am in the nether regions, I see that it stifles the beauty of the life he lived. Inside the catacombs he becomes a mere skeleton, but he was much more than that. Parent, poet, inspiration, friend, companion — no headstone could hold the sum of all that he was. Nor can any person’s, since we are so much more than one word descriptions, or physical traits, or an assemblage of osseous structures. Inside this noiseless haunt I know that I must see sunsets without him, travel roads without him, experience the world without him. Yet I struggle to find comfort in this knowledge.

Desperate for some measure of solace, which eludes me in the damp sinister depths of the catacombs, I climb out of the tunnels and into the sunlight once more. I am not ready for the vivacity of Paris, but I crave any ointment that will help assuage the constriction deep inside, the emptiness that feels physical but is not. I remember the elegiac sculptures I discovered before at Père Lachaise and the evocative encomiums carved onto the many monuments. I set my feet once more upon its wooded acres. After the austerity of the catacombs, the ordered rows of markers at Père Lachaise have a cordial look to them.

“I can almost imagine knocking on one of the ornate mausoleum doors and being welcomed inside by its spectral inhabitant.”

I search for the grave sites of Henri de Régnier and Gérard de Nerval, two French poets we admired who influenced Daniel’s own work. Perhaps at their shrines I can gain some inspiration for how to deal with my loss. While hunting for their memorials I see various renditions of death in the graves around me. Death is only a great silence for sculptor Antoine-Augustin Préault. Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach refuses to believe in death, wrestling to break free of his sarcophagus. Artist Jacob Epstein portrays death’s defeat by the winged poet. These tributes remind me of a line in Régnier’s poem “The Bouquet,” in which he says, “From that which seems dead, do you think nothing can live?” As the sun begins to set through the darkening trees, I realize it will inevitably rise tomorrow, a glowing illustration of Régnier’s words.

Perhaps in the repeated motif of triumph over death I find at the graves of Père Lachaise lies the key to mastering my own grief. Somewhere in the future, at some point there will be a space where this loss and my life can coexist side by side. Until that moment arrives, the proper place for me to bereave is in the sunshine and among the living. The best way in which to both mourn my friend and pay him homage is to enjoy the beauty of the world as he enjoyed it, to take stock in the value of the moments left to me, and to be patient with my pain. To vow not to enjoy life or stop from exploring the world is not the means by which I can honor Daniel. Even from my travels I know that where one road ends, it is only the beginning of a different road.

“The value and inspiration of his life should not expire with his last breath, but continue in my own life’s adventures.”

I need to return to the breathing Paris where every corner holds the potential for new experiences. I will walk the Boulevard des Capucines where we used to stroll together and recollect his lectures about the historic Grand Cafe. I will gaze at the sun setting at Lavacourt, his favorite painting in the Petit Palais, and memorize its patchwork of opalescent tones. I will sit upon his beloved bench in Buttes Chaumont and, surrounded by the whole of Paris, weep that we can never watch over his beloved city together.

Until my own last chapter is written I hope I can continue to cherish Daniel’s memory by continuing to explore this world. I do not know if that is what he would have wanted from me, but I know it is what he would have done. By following in his footsteps, savoring every experience, and re-engaging with life I will be grieving for the whole of who Daniel was. The world will not feel the same in his absence but, while daring to imagine a future without him, I hope to carry inside me his eternal flame.Père Lachaise guardian


The poem below has been loosely translated from its original French into English by me . Please pardon any paraphrase errors on my part.

The Bouquet by Henri de Régnier (1864-1936)

Upon the rose that bloomed in the center of the parquet 
Place your light foot, listen and be stealthy; 
The solitude speaks to those who come; 
Have you not heard the marble which cracked?

The harp shakes and vibrates at your indiscreet step, 
The chandelier swings and its crystal brightens; 
From that which seems dead do you think nothing can live? 
Ice has its ghost and everything has its secret.

Time passes; everything leaks; these things are true, 
The invisible silence fans its wings 
The dust thoughtful and the shadow transparent;

And, on the bare table where the marble veins 
To some seeming like ancient and pale flesh, 
Sheds the bouquet that Love gave to you.


TRAVEL NOTE:

Due to the transfer of the bodies of Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804 to Père Lachaise, the cemetery became a popular site for the social elites of Paris. However, the site was meant for the burial of any Parisian citizen, regardless of class, race, or religion. The first person to be buried at the historic graveyard was the daughter of a hotel doorman. Today, famous men and women from around the world find their last resting place here, including Guatemalan diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias, Turkish songwriter Ahmet Kaya, and Indian shipping magnate Kavasjee Dubash.

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15 replies »

  1. Dying is a part of life … i am sorry for yr lost. I have connection with dying people at my work. This Just give me thinking about life … how short & fragile it is. Think about yrself ad use yr life 😉 enjoy yr life. Ps. Paris is next on my list, cant wait to go to see the catacombs … regards

  2. Sorry to hear about your loss. Sorry I read this too late. I went to Evora, Portugal last year, we visited a Chapel that also the walls are covered by human skulls and bones. Is definitely a different experience. I don’t know if you have seen this place. Is called Chapel of Bones. The monk responsible for it Fr. António da Ascenção did this for people to remember that life here on Earth is temporary… He wrote this poem…

    Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
    Stop … do not proceed;
    You have no greater concern,
    Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

    Recall how many have passed from this world,
    Reflect on your similar end,
    There is good reason to reflect
    If only all did the same.

    Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
    Among the many concerns of the world,
    So little do you reflect on death;

    If by chance you glance at this place,
    Stop … for the sake of your journey,
    The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

    • Thank you so much for sharing the poem by Fr. António da Ascenção! It is supremely moving. I especially like the line: “The more your pause, the further on your journey will be.” Life is lived differently when one remembers that death comes to us all in the end. I have not been to Portugal yet, but the Chapel of Bones will definitely be a place I will go pause inside when I travel to Evora.

  3. I’m sorry for your loss, Atreyee. This is a very touching and passionate memorial. Really excellent writing, very deep and descriptive. You have really taken us along on your journey.

  4. Atreyee, I’m very sorry to hear about your dear friend’s passing.

    Père LaChaise is indeed a beautiful, poignant place that causes one to reflect on life. Shawn and I went there during an autumn weekend in Paris, and the visit created some of our most lasting memories of that trip. We have yet to visit the Catacombs, despite having twice contemplated waiting in very long lines to see them. Having had wonderful, reflective moments in Père LaChaise, we opted instead to stroll the Luxembourg Gardens. Perhaps someday.

    • Thank you for your sympathy Tricia, I really appreciate it. I waited to have the right mindset to visit the Catacombs (the 1st time) because it is a very stark and raw place. Under normal situations I would not recommend going to both sites in one day! I visited Père Lachaise on my first trip to Paris and have never gotten over its sad beauty. Even under happier circumstances it has so much fodder for reflections on life, death, art, and poetry. It was especially a fitting place for me to revisit during this difficult time. Did you and Shawn have a favorite spot or sculpture when you visited there?

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