Paris once had cemeteries on every corner, rather the way London once had pubs, but when with the ever increasing population this became a health hazard, Paris at least changed things. In the mid-nineteenth century, most of the inner city cemeteries stopped receiving new graves, and all burials were sent to newer cemeteries outside the centre of the city. Among the few that continue to operate within the city are Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmartre, and the cemetery in the 16th arrondissement. They now serve not only as cemeteries but as precious inner-city green spaces (no pique-nique allowed, obviously).
Recently, we were attempting to find the grave of a man who died in 1889. Our research had revealed that he was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery, a vast area of over 45 acres in the 14th arrondissement. We had the division number, the section number, and the grave number. However, only the divisions, which hold hundreds of graves, are marked. Undaunted, we wandered the entire division, taking all of a golden, autumn, Saturday afternoon, certain to find our man. Of course we couldn't.
Tourists strolled by, looking for the many graves of the famous. There were grand tombs with sculpture, a couple with crazy cartoon pieces, plenty of marble slabs, many old, barely legible stones, and some that were broken, illegible, had red-striped tape across them, and the ominous notice that if no one came forward to pay for its repair and upkeep the grave would be emptied and the plot resold. Montparnasse Cemetery has had, according to the official website, over 350,000 burials in its almost 200 years of existence. The website boasts that it currently has 35,000 graves. Um, what happened to the other ninety per cent, we wondered?
The following Monday, when the bureau would be open, we returned to ask about our man. He was a poor fellow, who surely would not have been able to afford a grand tombstone. Most of his relatives seemed to have left Paris, so it was unlikely that anyone had been around to care for his grave. We feared the worst, but asked anyway. A substantial matron was at the desk and at first groaned at our request to know exactly where, among the 35,000, his little grave might be. Relieved that we had the man's full name and date of death, she smiled and went away to look in the files. She warned us, however, that the cemetery administration keeps no information about the people buried or their family or who paid for the plot originally.
Indeed, his grave was one of the ones that, after 112 years and due notice on the part of the cemetery administration, was no more. "It was in ruins, the stones were broken," the matron informed us, somewhat defensively, we thought. We asked her what was done with the remains. She told us that they had been removed respectfully and the plot resold.
To where had the remains been respectfully removed? To Père Lachaise, on the eastern side of Paris. We asked if there might not be a marker or a list, of those remains deposited in the ossuary. "Vous rigolez ou quoi?"she said, exasperated with my questioning. ("Are you joking, or what?") And then our matron made a gesture of one arm sweeping downward under the other that gave a clear, silent indication of a chute into the underworld.
©2009, Anne Morddel