Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Pere Lachaise at Last!

OK, this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for – well, perhaps not, but I certainly have been looking forward to it for some time: The visit to Pere Lachaise.

As cemetery fans know, Pere Lachaise in Paris was the first of the “garden cemeteries” that developed in the 19th century. But its origins were definitely unromantic and sanitation and health oriented, and the above photo looks bleak - but bear in mind that this was in late December in chilly Paris, so the “garden” part will look a lot better in a few months.

The garden cemetery movement was not an aesthetic movement, but was the result of concerns about parts of Paris that had turned into charnel pits (basically, mass graves) and as a result suffered from contaminated water and unbreathable air.  The cemetery was built on land that had belonged to a Jesuit residence where "Pere La-Chaise," a priest who had been the confessor and important advisor to Louis XVI, had once lived.  Curiously, Catholics originally were not permitted to be buried in Pere Lachaise (later English spelling)  because it was not consecrated ground, although at some point, that changed and there are now many Catholics buried in Pere Lachaise.

The cemetery, which opened in 1804 and sits atop a hill in the 20th Arrondissement, is a somewhat random looking place.  Outside of the walls, there are many funeral services and stores that sell headstones, urns...and the beautiful ceramic flowers below, a welcome substitute for our plastic flowers. Inside the walls, there are collapsed vaults, bizarre vaults, beautiful vaults, arrogant vaults, unassuming family vaults…and Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, both of whose vaults have had to be protected from their rabid fans.

If there’s any US place I think would be similar to Pere Lachaise, it would be Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. That is, a profusion of monuments, abundant scatterings of "grave goods" (the things people leave on or around a burial place), closely packed graves…and tours.

But our tour was quite an eccentric one, unbooked, random, and our guide, Raphael, found us rather than the reverse. However, this is the common practice with Raphael, and if you do a search of Raphael and Pere Lachaise, you’ll get a lot of results.  Below, he clutches his trusty IPad and map as he tells us the details of the monument behind him.

 First, though, the cemetery.

The winter is perhaps not its best time, but really, any time that you’re in Paris is probably the best time. We arrived on the metro and put on our hats and scarves and gloves and went up the hill.
There is a map floating around in various places, including the cemetery’s own excellent website (which has a virtual tour), but the map’s vision and that of normal human beings appears to be a little different, and it can be hard to find the marked sites.

We wandered the cemetery, which is divided into sectors and aisles and corners, fruitlessly looking for Chopin (whose body is buried at Pere Lachaise, while his heart is buried in Poland.)  And then suddenly we heard a voice saying, “Chopin!  You are looking for Chopin?”

This was Raphael, who has been the benevolent guide-spirit of the cemetery for some 30 years.  He emerges, he finds you, takes you to see what you wanted to see and much more, and then (after a tip, of course…don’t forget the tip!) he dashes off to find other people looking for Chopin. 

Here you see him zipping along a secret corridor behind the vaults, followed by one of his little flock.

But by the end, you will have run after him at top speed and seen a lot of burial sites and heard so many real, true (he swears it!), not-ghost-stories by that time that you’ll be exhausted.
The cemetery is some 110 acres, and includes hundreds of markers, vaults, monuments and enclosures, as well as a crematory and ossuary.  It has some 100,000 burials at the moment, but as Raphael told us, “Famous? You get to stay forever. Not famous?  Ten – 20 years, whatever you have paid for and then…” thumb over the shoulder. 

However, famous can have many meanings...a M. Lafitte, the inventor of the anvil, is buried at Pere Lachaise, although I didn't even realize that the anvil had an inventor. (This refers, of course, to the anvil with the rounded point for shaping horseshoes.)

We ran between the vaults, following Raphael down narrow corridors, up leaf-covered stairs hidden behind drooping branches, and along routes that only he knew to find the people that he had determined would be of interest to us.  This did not include Jim Morrison, although I have a vague recollection of having sped past his grave at some point.
All you need to be buried at Pere Lachaise, technically, is to have been a resident of Paris at some point, or to have died there (which explains Jim Morrison).  The survivors of the deceased essentially lease the space, for ten years or more, and after this time, the remains can be removed and placed in the giant ossuary or even cremated. Along the edges of the cemetery are “Gardens of Remembrance,” which are strips of very green grass regularly sprinkled with ashes from the crematory and guarded by a sign warning people not to step on them.

The streets and aisles of the cemetery are narrow and tightly packed. There are large family vaults with many people buried in them, but most of the features that appear to be vaults are actually just ornamental stone structures built over an underground crypt, which is generally not accessible.  
The cemetery is famous for its monuments. They include the starkly realistic – the one below is a communard who died in the uprising of 1871.

The other very realistic monument is that of a famous Parisian Lothario who was shot dead by the husband of one of his conquests and is now considered a sort of lucky fertility symbol for couples who want to have children.  At the instruction of Raphael, the embarrassed New York couple below touched both of the figure's shoes because they want twins.  There was the other visibly shiny part of the figure they had to touch, too, for the "magic" to work...which is why they appear so embarrassed.

Many of the people buried at Pere Lachaise were well known in the art world or the world of performing arts.  Modigliani is buried there, and so is Delacroix – the latter with some great bronze recreations of some of his most famous paintings.

Musicians abounded. We did find Chopin, and we found a variety of other musicians, including Edit Piaf. We also found people I hadn’t thought about for years, such as Marcel Marceau, the mime who went by the name of Bip and died in 2007. He was born in Strasbourg and of course had to flee from the Nazis, lived in hiding as a member of the French Resistance...and developed his skills in their clandestine theatrical performances. 

From the world of English letters we have, of course, Oscar Wilde.  His monument is protected by a large cat, one of the many that roam the cemetery. 

It is also protected by a plexiglass shield, because for some completely unaccountable reason, women love to kiss the marker, and the lipstick was damaging the stone. Below you can see the lipstick stains left by the more athletic women who managed to get above the plexiglass and plant their kisses next to the wonderful Sphinx carving by Jacob Epstein.

There are many Americans, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (both California products), whose grave is tended and decorated by Raphael, as you see below.  William Franklin, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin who died in somewhat clouded circumstances in Paris, is also buried in Pere Lachaise, and there are in fact, once you start looking, many Americans who managed to be buried there because they happened to die in Paris.

Naturally, there are politicians buried all over the place, many in very imposing mausoleums, although most of their names would now be unknown even to French citizens.  Napoleon had wanted to be buried there, but actually got his very own – well, calling it a mausoleum would be seriously understating it. Perhaps temple would be a better word: below you see his ornamental casket at Les Invalides, several miles away, where the rotunda is graced by many statues of Napoleon in a god-like form.

But if you're not Napoleon, the cemetery accepts burials of persons of all religions or none at all, but one thing that was almost surprising was the profusion of Jewish burials.  There are various Rothschilds buried there, although some were moved to Israel long ago, and many burials of other Jewish public figures or people important in the business world.
But there was one particularly striking area of the cemetery that I had never read about: the Holocaust monuments. The various concentration camps to which French Jews were deported are marked, each one with its own monument, and there is also a monument specifically for the children who were taken from Paris to these camps and never returned. 

There are also monuments that suddenly call the viewer back to the difficult present.  The young woman below died in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in 2015.

And the young man was one of the writers for the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, who died in the terrorist attack on the magazine’s offices, also in 2015.

The day was very cold, windy and occasionally rainy, and after a couple of hours, we called it quits, went off to have a glass of wine and a croque monsieur in a warm neighborhood café, and then ended up at Sacre Coeur, viewing the remarkable mosaics. When last seen, Raphael was bounding off to find more people looking for Chopin.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tolomato 2017 - Lights and Shadows

We're getting ready for our Annual Meeting this coming Saturday, December 16, from 4-6:00 pm, and all of you who get this blog post are welcome.  It's also our Christmas party, which we have outdoors at the cemetery, so dress warmly!

 But before we start marking our calendars, let's look at what has happened over the last year.  Blog posts have been a little scanty because we have had so many time consuming reconstruction tasks as a result of a hurricane named Matthew, followed in less than 12 months time by a hurricane named Irma, and the major focus was on those events.  Nonetheless, we had some real high points and great events in between all those consultations with fence companies, tree surgeons, etc.

In January, 2017 we started with a gloomy sight – a dark day with our proud red cedar sheared off at the top.  This was damage from Matthew in October of 2016, but most of the other damage had been remedied by then.

So the famous TCPA volunteers, docents and board members, such as Brooke and Janet, above,  got busy and we moved along with our usual Open Day and visitor schedule, having an average of 3-400 visitors on each Open Day over the spring and summer. We had some special spring events: the annual Minorcan Day in February, a visit from our Cuban archeological friends, and some interesting individual visitors. For example, we had two visitors from a historic cemetery in Roswell, Georgia, who told us the sad Civil War story of the lost women of Roswell.  And we had numerous descendants and other interested parties who came looking for genealogical information (which Louise Kennedy, and her new "genealogist in training," Joan, were happy to supply).

We had another big event in April, with the installation of the DAR marker for Juan Ruiz del Canto, a Spanish naval captain who assisted the Americans in the Revolutionary War. We now have three Revolutionary War figures marked at the cemetery: Don Juan McQueen, Juan Ruiz del Campo, and Francisco Xavier Sanchez.  St Augustine was under the British during the Revolution, so most of their activity took place elsewhere, usually on the seas.

We decorated for Memorial Day in May and in June we were ready for a CRPT (Cemetery Resource Preservation Training) event, showing attendees the cemetery and our preservation activities.  We also started a few projects aimed at furthering these ends: the improvement of lighting in the Varela Chapel and the installation of a large room-sized storage shed, given to us by the Cathedral for use as an office and materials storage space, on the grounds of St Benedict’s Church in Lincolnville. The lighting project is temporarily suspended, since Hurricane Irma made us realize that there are more pressing needs for the Varela Chapel. But the new TCPA “office” is moving ahead. The shed has been moved to a good location, insulated, supplied with shelving and lighting, and is now awaiting the installation of windows.  Below you see Barbara Wingo opening the door, and it is now keeping our papers and supplies high and dry.

In June, Elizabeth went to the conference of the Association for Gravestone Studies in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and came back with all sorts of ideas, as well as having learned about "comb graves" (which we don't have here in Florida). At the moment, a group of Florida cemetery enthusiasts, including Shelby Bender, Emily Jane from FPAN, and Catherine Eddins from Tallahassee, are engaged in forming and planning the first program for the new Florida Chapter of the AGS.  More on that later!

Elizabeth also went on a quest to find the original Tolomato site. There is a site that is inaccurately known as Tolomato Island, near Darien, Georgia – which actually turned out to be the remains of a 19th century sugar mill, something that hasn’t stopped optimistic developers from using the name, as you see below  - but the verifiable site is the next photo, an idyllic location at what is now the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge, near St Catherine’s Island in Georgia. Artifacts have been found, but the actual location hasn’t been determined; however, we’re getting closer. One of these days we'll know more.

August was a fairly quiet month, marked mainly by the visit of  And we were fortunate enough to have Emily Ford, from the New Orleans restoration company Oak and Laurel, come in and take a look at the Oliveros Papy vault, which is in serious need of preservation. We started work on this, and found that the descendants are interested...but then...Irma hit.

This time, the flooding seems to have been somewhat less of a problem than the wind. There was no damage to the markers, except that the sign you see below and the new bushes we had just put in, alas, are no more. They were pulverized by huge limbs that fell from the big oak tree near the gate. But the gate itself was spared, and the damage was cleaned up within little more than a month, although the tree near the gate will never look the same.

We were fortunate enough to have clean-up help from members of a men’s prayer group from a parish in Pennsylvania who wanted to aid post-Irma Florida, and wanted to help somebody who couldn’t pay them back.  So they called around to the cemeteries and found us. The two men, accompanied by Conrad from the local hostal, The Pirate Haus, wielded their chain saws and went through these huge limbs snicker-snack. Below you see Our Heroes, accompanied by TCPA members. Then the pros came in with their trucks and hauled off the mountains of debris.

Other lesser damage, such as the cracked NE corner of the new wall, is under repair. 

We were open again in October, and we had a huge event at the end of the month just to prove it. Florida Living History sponsored its Dia de los Difuntos event at the cemetery, and we hosted reenactors - such as James Bullock “being” Gen. Biassou and Fr. Medina “being” Fr. Varela – and even a short 16th century Spanish play presented by Theater with a Mission from Tallahassee. It was a great event, attended by some 700 people, and we expect to do it again next year.

In November, we also had another All Souls event, the annual blessing of the graves led by Fr. Tom Willis from the Cathedral. As always, the Minorcans, accompanied by Fr. Ed Booth, came to Tolomato for their usual November prayers for their Minorcan ancestors, as well as for a chance to view the new fence-donor plaque installed on the wall, as Menorcan Society President Rusty Hall is doing below. The other donor plaques are in the works and will be ready early next year.

Also in the fall, we had preservation activities with our Flagler College friends and a great visit from a group of 7th graders from FSDB (Florida School for the Deaf and Blind), who did rubbings and learned about the cemetery and local history.

We also conducted a condition survey of all of the features, and are preparing to work on a few especially threatened markers and vaults. In addition to the Oliveros Papy vault, we have other vaults that need attention (repointing of bricks, restoration of plastering, etc.), deteriorating metalwork, and our centerpiece, the Varela Chapel, which needs painting and moisture control. You’ll hear more about this next year.

Tolomato made it to the screen a couple of times this fall, with the cemetery being used as an (unidentified) backdrop for an episode of the PBS show “Secrets of the Dead,” and also being filmed for part of a series on the Minorcans in St Augustine.

Also in November, we were saddened to announce the death of one of our wonderful volunteers, Priscilla de la Cruz, whom many will remember from the front gate, where she greeted visitors wearing her famous top hat.  Requiescat in pace, dear Priscilla.

Finally, we made it to December.  To start, Janet decorated the chapel and the bishop with a wreath and poinsettias. Then, a couple of days ago, we had a group of Greek visitors from the Panhellenic Society in the far off Tampa-St Pete area, who laid a wreath and had an Orthodox memorial service at the tomb of Mary Darling, known in St Augustine for having been a teacher at what is now called the Oldest Schoolhouse. She was a member of the Genopoly family, which bears an Anglicized version of their Greek name, and thus a descendant of one of the “Greek Minorcan” families who arrived in St. Augustine in 1777.

 And now? The only thing left this year, of course, is our Annual Meeting and Christmas Party, which will be held on Saturday, December 16, at 4:00 pm just after the closing of the gates for our regular Open Day.  If you’re getting this blog post – you’re invited. There will be tasty goodies and beverages, a chance to meet fellow Tolomato fans, and you’ll get to hear more of the details on our important preservation plans for 2018. Naturally, you are more than welcome to become a member if you’re not already one, renew your membership if it has lapsed, and – most important – volunteer to be part of these exciting things next year!  We need you!