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My journey as a cemetery tourist

If I could be buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where my husband and I once spent a drizzly afternoon communing with the famous dead of Paris, then I might find a certain allure in the prospect of my own demise. Pere Lachaise isn’t one of those groomed cemeteries, every flower bed primped like a model for the runway. It’s a wild, romantic place where tangled greenery obscures the eroded stones of the forgotten. Next time, I’d like to wander those paths while listening to a nocturne by Chopin. He’s buried there (you’re looking at his grave), along with Oscar WildeSarah BernhardtIsadora DuncanEdith Piaf , Moliere and the tousled rock wastrel of my youth, Jim Morrison, whose grave, when I saw it, was strewn with pornographic mash notes in which fans invited him to ravish them in hell.

I’ve urged countless Paris-bound friends not to miss Pere Lachaise, but few of them share my taste for cemetery tourism. Yet if you want to understand the spirit of a place, you could do worse than see how it honours the sages, pathfinders and rabble rousers whose influence outlived them. In Buenos Aires, I was not about to miss Recoleta Cemetery, the resting place of Argentina’s continuing obsession,Eva Peron. In Cambridge, Mass., I walked the park-like grounds of Mount Auburn Cemetery to hang out with Bernard Malamud and Winslow Homer. In churchyards all over New England and the British Isles, I have crouched to read the headstones of ordinary people lost shockingly young to childbirth and mysterious fevers. I wondered how it felt to bear two, four or half a dozen children and bury every one.

This not-quite-vanished summer, I became a cemetery tourist here at home. I followed a guide through the gingerbread gate of the Victorian Toronto Necropolis. There, while listening to the tale of some local worthy or scoundrel barely known outside my city, I noticed I was standing on Ellen’s grave. She had the most discreet of stones, just her name and her dates. We had the same birth year.

A century from now or even a couple of decades, no one outside her own family will remember who she was. She never married, had no children. She left a house, a garden, a promising career and a circle of devoted friends. One of those women, an intimate since high school days, was also a fairly recent friend of mine and I remember a faint stab of envy at Ellen’s prior claim on her affections.

Besides a friend, Ellen and I once had a lover in common—my first. I remember climbing two flights of stairs to his room under the eaves and finding Ellen there, curled up barefoot in the faded green armchair I thought of as mine. I’d already begun to interest in the man I’d come to see, yet I resented my rival for usurping me. She was beautiful and blonde. She didn’t wear glasses.

She was 33 when she killed herself. I heard the news from our mutual friend. The last person to see Ellen alive, she had witnessed the ruthless advance of depression and been unable to stop it. At the time I had no idea how it felt to lose a friend under any circumstances, let alone those circumstances. “Don’t think this is any way your fault,” I said, perhaps too quickly.

We never spoke of Ellen again. There were so many living people to amuse, provoke or tantalize us. But now that my friend is also dead, I wonder how she carried the burden of Ellen’s loss. I don’t think it’s any accident that, one balmy Sunday in 2009, I found myself standing on the very spot where my friend must have left a flower or two. I came as a cemetery tourist, but the history I found was my own.

I’ve often written about mourning. Click here to read my post on condolence notes and here to read about the death of a friend.

 

Posted by Rona

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