Halloween is not really an observed holiday in Paris. I’ve been told this is partly because the next day is All Saint’s Day, which is part of the Roman Catholic tradition and involves honoring the saints and paying respect to the dead. Witches and Catholicism do not make a fantastic pairing, especially in comparison to peanut butter and chocolate. I think I saw five people dressed up and two of them were UChicago students.
I didn’t really mind because Halloween is not my favorite holiday. Thinking of a costume and dressing up are too much work, and you always have to plan around the fact that it’s 40 degrees outside. I did, however, miss trick-or-treating. And also Kit-Kat bars. And Reese’s cups.
Even though Halloween is only acknowledged in Starbucks and Chipotle (yes, it exists, even in Paris!) and you can get discounts or a free Pumpkin Spice Latte if you wear a costume, I wanted to go see something more in the holiday spirit. Unfortunately, the Catacombs are closed right now because their air ventilation system is not working, and I’m sure it must get pretty musty with all those bones in the walls. However, I had nothing to worry. I’ve recently discovered that Paris is full of dead people. Over the next two days, I traveled to two cemeteries within city limits: Père Lachaise and Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Père Lachaise is hilly and covers an expanse of land that takes at least a half hour or so to walk across – and that’s if you’re not looking for famous graves! The small avenues are made of cobblestones and carve crooked squares of land where the dead sleep side by side. The tombstones and mausoleums are squished, and in some areas, I couldn’t stand with my feet side by side. I bet the real estate market for burying space must be ridiculous. I tried looking up how one would secure a plot in a cemetery in Paris, but I didn’t find much information. I did learn that graves are recycled, and for family plots, coffins are often placed one on top of another. (Creepy stuff.)
Despite all this talk about burial practices, it actually wasn’t very spooky at the cemetery. My friend and I went during the afternoon, so it was sunny and just breezy enough for the leaves to drop from the trees in the distance. We had a Rick Steves guidebook, but like the reasonable people that we are, we got off at the Metro stop labeled “Père Lachaise” instead of Gambetta, which meant we had to follow his tour backwards. Since his map was merely a sketch and the winding paths were only occasionally labeled, there was a lot of doubling back and retracing our steps. However, we managed to catch the highlights:
- Frédéric Chopin: I can still play his Valse, op. 62, no. 2 after a seven-year hiatus from the piano. A man was watering the bouquets of fresh roses near his tombstone when we passed by.
- Jim Morrison: I only know two songs by The Doors, but there were obvious fans. The mausoleum right in front of Morrison’s tombstone is littered with graffiti, and a metal gate now separates guests from the grave.
- Théodore Géricault: The Raft of Medusa is carved in copper on his headstone, need I say more?
- Edith Piaf: She sang “La Vie en Rose.” Buried in a family plot.
- Oscar Wilde: An Egyptian sphinx-like creature decorates his tomb. There’s a plastic barrier around the stone, covered with messages of affection, and baskets lie on the ground next to metal gates for vistors who wish to leave a few tokens. I scrawled a quick Post-It note and paid homage to The Importance of Being Earnest.
- Gertrude Stein: We passed by her grave at least three times. My friend accidentally stepped on the plot in her attempt to take a picture of the headstone and promptly tripped and fell on her butt. She’s fine, but moral of the story: don’t mess with Gertrude Stein.
- We didn’t see the graves of the many famous artists that reside there, including David, Seraut, and Delacroix. On our way out, I tried to locate Marcel Proust. If Proust was in search of lost time, I was in search of his lost grave. Either the maps were lying to us, or we’re just merely unobservant (probably the latter).
The cemetery in Montparnasse was much smaller, but it also had big names, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (who are buried together and have lipstick marks all over their tombstone), Samuel Beckett (which also took forever to find), Emile Durkheim (sociology!), and Julio Cortazar (on whom I gave up because it was too cold). Rumor has it, Susan Sontag also lies in Montparnasse, but apparently, she wasn’t important enough to be labeled on the main map just inside the gates.
At Père Lachaise, there were some reflective moments – we passed by a funeral procession, Holocaust memorials graced with expressive sculptures, and a grieving woman spreading the ashes of a loved one in an expanse of grass. On All Saint’s Day, which is when I went to Montparnasse, flowers and plants had been left on the graves of the recently deceased, and many families had come to sweep and wipe down the graves.
All in all, the cemeteries were surprisingly great places to take a walk. Sure, it would’ve been much more atmospheric had it been dark, but during the day, they serve as a funny gathering place of tourists, locals, funeral guests, and maintenance workers. I even saw a couple pushing a baby carriage on an afternoon stroll. It was a great way to spend Halloween, especially in a country that doesn’t really celebrate it. I’m still waiting for Kit-Kat bars to appear on supermarket shelves though.