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Rambling About (In) Cemeteries: Montparnasse Cemetery

Posted by Andrea in Paris + Places on 28/Feb/2008
One grey New Year's Day in Paris my sister and I decided to go for a walk. Our senses happily dulled from the night before, we wandered through Montparnasse; a high wall herded us along the sidewalk. Suddenly, it broke into large gates: a cemetery lay beyond. We hesitated, but our curiosity was piqued, so we went in.

* * *

Montparnasse cemetery has been collecting cadavers since 1824. Its final resting places are divided into a grid (except for the centre circle) by avenues complete with signage. There are actually two cemeteries, le grand and le petit. And, no, le petit isn't reserved for the underachievers: André Citroën and Guy de Maupassant lie there. Its illustrious congregation (and its history) can be found with the help of any major guidebook, some googling, and the free map available at the main entrance.

As tourist attractions go, cemeteries aren't top of the list for many people. But they do have their time and place in life. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." We're all going to end up there one day; why not see what we're in for? Cemeteries are about memory and history. They mark our presence on earth for our contemporaries and for the generations to come. They provide a place to go to remember, to discover, to reflect and to thank. And for the interred who can afford it, cemeteries are about grandeur.

Montparnasse Cemetery: Kiss

Photo by Mykaul
Artists have long been commissioned to commit souls to public memory, the evidence of which abounds in Montparnasse. It is nothing if not grand: the jumbled archive of the “I was here" museum.

The most common art form is relief and three-dimensional sculpture, though bits of colourful mosaic and stained glass can be spotted in the grey. In terms of style, the imposing neoclassical and romantic are dominant; partly because the cemetery was opened in the 1800's, and partly because they jibe well with the angels and pious characters of Christianity. Fortunately, there are some break-away tombs that lighten things up. The early 1900's introduced cubism: Henri Laurens designed his own tomb, and Brancusi commemorated his friend Rachevskaïa's existence with “The Kiss". The Crestinu family went for a modernist monolith/heaven-ward highrise, and Sartre and de Beauvoir decided on significant simplicity – an existentialist statement? A life-size sculpture of a man in bed with his wife marks one grave, a giant mirrored bird and a mosaic cat mark others. The final grand signatures of lives lived. Quite something to behold.

There was a surprising amount of people in the cemetery that January 1st. Some were like us, wandering about taking things in, some were taking photos, and some were there to commune with the past, leaving flowers, stones or kisses. A few graves were so well tended that you felt like you had entered someone's living room. We wondered what the stories behind the names were….

After a while, though, we began to get chilly and missed the hustle and bustle of the streets. Like I said, cemeteries have their time and place and, that day, their time was up. We left our intersection with the past and went in search of a café crème.

Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris, France) Photo by Etienne Cazin

Montparnasse Cemetery
(Le Cimetière du Montparnasse)
3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet,
Paris, France 75014
Tel. +33 (0)1 44 10 86 50
(14th arrondissement)

N.B. The Catacombs
are across the street.

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