La Toussaint, All Saints’ Day, on November 1, is one of the great holidays in France. Then and on the day after (All Souls’ Day), cemeteries are crowded with people. Some carry buckets, scrubbing brushes, and trowels, others flowers and wreaths. Many just wander about having a look and chatting to their companions.
This year La Toussaint fell on a Sunday. Despite or perhaps because of the lockdown, the crowds in Parisian cemeteries were just as large and just as happy. Children darted about, young people walked hand-in-hand, and cemetery guides did good business telling their stories. Even the machine-gun toting police (on duty following the recent Islamist savageries in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and Nice) seemed in a good mood, despite the gray and drizzle.
As is the case generally in France, many of the tombs and family mausoleums in Paris cemeteries are run-down. They tilt, their doors are ajar, they often have dirt and litter inside, and they can be weedy and uncared-for. During La Toussaint, however, candles and fleurs deuil—chrysanthemums, heather, pansies, lilies, and roses adorning the busts and grave plaques—are everywhere and brighten things up considerably. The upkeep of flowers is privately funded—the municipality only pays for general clean-up and landscaping.
It is not just friends and family who leave tributes, however. Paris’s cemeteries are full of artists, musicians, actors, politicians, and more colorful characters, many of whom died without heirs, whose achievements continue to shape our lives and perceptions. Their graves are not always easy to find: age often obscures the engraving, tombs may be located a distance from the road, and footing between the graves can be awkward. During the year, admirers visit the cemeteries in Paris and occasionally leave offerings on the graves of those men and women with whom they feel a connection. Sometimes these are just flowers, sometimes a rock or two, and sometimes something more personal—like a t-shirt reading “I ♥ Debussy” or a new line of graffiti at Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise. But La Toussaint provides an official annual occasion, a replacement birthday of sorts, for people to come and demonstrate their admiration.
The little Passy Cemetery, adjacent to the Trocadéro, is solidly middle-class. It discreetly numbers several names associated with the beverage industry (Hennessy, Pommery, Taittinger, Perrier) and aviation (several flyers from the early days) trades and is dominated by the gigantic tomb of the diarist, painter, and flirt Marie Bashkirtseff. Passy’s most notable inhabitants are probably the Manets: Édouard, of course, as well as his brother Eugène and Eugène’s wife Berthe Morisot. The three painters, interred with the rest of the Manets’ family, had violets placed on their freshly cleaned grave top. Not far away, the tomb of Claude Debussy, also freshly cleaned, was decorated with yellow carnations and white water lilies. The tomb of the pianists Alfred and Marie Jaëll bore a single rose, while Yves Nat (one of the first to record the cycle of Beethoven sonatas) had a recently planted rosebush to himself. Somewhat surprisingly, the graves of Gabriel Fauré and the light-opera composer André Messager, still popular in France, seemed unvisited, possibly due to their difficult location.
Montmartre Cemetery, a short journey from Passy on the number 30 bus, is home to many more musicians and writers, several of whose tombs were primped up for the day. Hector Berlioz’s resting place (located unsurprisingly on the Chemin Berlioz) was surrounded by red cyclamens and yellow carnations. A few steps away, Heinrich Heine’s bust looked down disapprovingly at the large wreath and bouquet left by the mayor of Düsseldorf. A hundred yards farther down, at the foot of Alexandre Dumas fils’ tomb (showing his effigy as if asleep on a four-poster bed) were yellow dahlias, while his nearby paramour, Alphonsine Plessis (“la dame aux camélias”), had a spray of white chrysanthemums, camelias being out of season. The tombs of Adolphe Adam (Giselle), Jacques-Fromental Halévy’s (La Juive), and the composer-pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan bore little piles of stones, though on one of the larger stones on Adam’s grave someone had drawn a little heart. On the Rue des Anglais, Jacques Offenbach’s bust, peering off towards his right, ignored the new dahlias and variegated shrubs below. Heading back towards the entrance, admirers left several bouquets, a pot of heather, and a rain-soaked copy of Le Rouge et Le Noir on the tomb of Henri Beyle—Stendhal. But the out-of-the-way grave of Pauline Viardot-Garcia (a soprano, piano pupil of Chopin, and excellent composer in her own right) was neglected, as was that of the guitar virtuoso Fernando Sor. The grave of Lili and Nadia Boulanger, the latter having taught generations of American pianists and composers (Copland, Thomson, and Rorem) was also uncared for—but also difficult to find.
Despite the eminence of these and other artists (Nijinsky, the Goncourt brothers, Gautier, and Degas, all of whom had small floral tributes), this year’s winners at Montmartre were from popular culture—Sacha Guitry’s tomb sported a huge saucer of purple cyclamens, while the tomb of Jean Bauchet, the owner of the Casino de Paris and former manager of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, was surrounded by flowers and potted shrubs.
After some ingenious (though macabre) marketing by its founders who (allegedly) re-interred Molière, Abelard and Héloïse, and La Fontaine there as “magnet graves,” Père Lachaise became the place in Paris to be buried. It became so à la mode that it required five expansions before reaching its present size. On this La Toussaint, Père Lachaise contained far more people strolling around and laying flowers than the other cemeteries.
Near the entrance on the Avenue Principale, the tomb of the hard-living romantic poet Alfred de Musset was decorated by pots of purple dianthus. Up the hill, that of the hard-dying Honoré de Balzac (who, in Octave Mirbeau’s account, slowly expired in the room next to where his wife was entertaining her lover) lay below a large pot of yellow chrysanthemums. The tomb of the haunted proto-Symbolist poet Gérard de Nerval, across from Balzac’s, bore a simple wreath. A cemetery guide was explaining to a rapt audience how poor de Nerval hanged himself from a grate. Farther east was the inventively decorated grave of Marcel Proust with an icon, several pots of flowers, and a heart made from horse chestnuts.
Back on the Avenue Principale, the mausoleum of Gioachino Rossini, next to that of his friend the banker Achille Fould, was well maintained but undecorated—possibly because Rossini was disinterred many years ago and moved to a basilica in Florence. On the Avenue de la Chapelle, Georges Enesco’s grave was brightly decorated, while a few feet down, Georges Bizet’s had a small bouquet of mixed flowers at its foot. An arrangement of flowers and a touching note were placed in front of the grave of Anton Reicha, the teacher of Berlioz and Liszt and the composer of some of the most interesting music of his time, while the grave of the violinist Ginette Neveu and her older brother, Jean, both killed in a plane crash, had several small pots of pansies left by admirers of their recordings. It is probably no surprise that the most popular composer in Père Lachaise is Frédéric Chopin, whose tomb was bedecked that day by nineteen floral arrangements, roughly twice as many candles (several of them lit), a commemorative wreath, and a rosary—as well as a small number of bystanders in no hurry to move on. The day’s big winner, predictably, was Edith Gassion—Piaf—who drew an even larger number of bouquets, but no candles.
The tributes paid to visual artists were generally more muted. The tombs of Doré, Pissarro, Seurat, and Géricault all bore arrangements, some large (Seurat), some small (Géricault), and some in-between (Doré and Pissarro). In Division 23, Jean-Auguste-Dominique (“better gray than garish”) Ingres continues a famous rivalry by staring resentfully at the marginally more prominent bouquets atop Eugène (“cold exactitude is not art”) Delacroix’s tomb. Another slyly amusing sight (to this observer at least) was Jules Michelet’s nearby tomb, surrounded by three rows of orange and white chrysanthemums, whose backdrop shows the historian on his back in bed smiling up at a striking female spirit en train de démonter.
But perhaps the most affecting tomb in Père Lachaise belongs to the tragédienne Rachel, dead now for a century and a half. On La Toussaint, the mausoleum had white and yellow flowers and beautifully maintained shrubbery before its doors, while in the spotlessly clean interior someone had left a gossamer-thin yellow scarf gently hanging from the prie-dieu. The reverence shown to Rachel is, to a greater or lesser degree, shown to so many other of her fellow artists. It is one thing to enjoy a book, painting, or piece of music by a favorite author, artist, or composer, quite something else to be so moved by their work to return, year after year, on wet November days to tell them so.