Culture: Cemeteries



Randy Black writes: Christopher Jones brings us the issue of vandalism of Christian cemeteries in France and whether or not it would be politically correct for the media to cover such issues. I would offer that I have visited and revisited French cemeteries on dozens of occasions over the past 35 years, including the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris in which I have a close friend.
 
I have seen vandalism in the form of graffiti in or on the outside walls of nearly all cemeteries at one time or the other. As I recall, none of the graffiti was political or religious in nature; it was mostly kid’s stuff, the occasional swastika, of course (it is France after all). Why do I visit cemeteries? I began studying graveyard folklore in college, as a class project for a folklore course, and find that cemeteries from San Francisco to Siberia offer insight into the location’s history, superstitions, and about a people’s devotion, or lack thereof, to their ancestors. One place in France where I have never seen vandalism of any type are the cemeteries of the WWII dead at or near Normandy. Those cemeteries stretch for miles. Cemeteries are an opportunity to learn about history, people and traditions.
 
Even the catacombs of Paris offer such insight. The French dug up 5-6 million traditional graves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and re-located the bones to the catacombs under the city in order to gain more surface land for commercial purposes. The catacombs date to the Roman quarries of about  60 B.C. but were expanded by the modern French in the 1700s.
 
France’s most famous cemetery, Pere-Lachaise in Paris, was established by Napoleon in 1804 and is named for the confessor of Louis XIV. It is perhaps the most visited cemetery in the world. Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Maria Callas, the painter Delacroix,  Yves Montand, the actor, Edith Piaf, France’s most famous singer, the father of impressionism, Pissarro, Gertrude Stein, the American writer, the list is endless, also inhabit the place which is one of the largest cemeteries in France, if not the largest.
 
Note: Many of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery’s residents rent their graves for perhaps 30-40 years, more or less, to be moved later when their lease is up. Go figure.
 
RH: Randy is right about cemeteries, especially old ones.  Take Winchester. There is a gravestone which reads:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire grenadier
Who caught his death from drinking cold small beer,
Soldiers, be wise from his untimely fall
And when you're hot, drink strong or not at all.

Then in Winchester College there is one which reads: Here lies John Smith,who went to Heaven instead of going to Oxford.




Ronald Hilton 2005

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last updated: April 13, 2005