I thought I had enough time. It was only 3:30 in the afternoon when I entered the gates of Montparnasse cemetery, just off Boulevard Edgar Quinet. A directory pointed me to the correct section – the northwest portion of the cemetery’s western part. I had wanted to pay tribute to Lt. Col. Alfred Dreyfus, the focus of L’Affaire Dreyfus, which stretched from 1894 to his exoneration in 1906, but whose echoes are still heard today.
Perhaps I was alone in my desire to see the Dreyfus grave, but I was certainly not alone in the cemetery. It was the middle of October, and the weather was mild. There were many other visitors, strolling the grounds, for Parisian cemeteries are like little parks, with tree-shaded pebbled paths surrounding neatly laid-out rectangles. Fallen orange leaves lined the walkways.
After passing a donation box instructing me to Pensez à celles des morts pour la France, “think of those who died for France,” I headed off. This section abutted an apartment building on the Boulevard Raspail, whose brick topped the cemetery wall. As I made my way to the Dreyfus grave, I had forgotten my penchant for reading and looking at everything, and there was so much to see. Most graves were staid, topped by crosses. But the others!
There was one decorated with a large, modern bird sculpture. One featured a bas relief of a woman’s profile, beneath a floral canopy, carved directly into the stone; at a later date, her husband’s silhouette in copper, now green, was added. The writer Joseph Kessel had a dark gray marble stone, unadorned except for birth and death dates and the words DE L’ACADEMIC FRANÇAISE. The Mayeur family favored an open book design, with the names of the dead carved on its pages. One grave featured two plain, upright stones, rough and unpolished. Another, embellished in the style of ancient Egypt, was of Marcel Suss, killed at the Battle of the Marne on 9 September 1914, when he was 26.
But the absolute winner was an interment I had seen photos of – but confronting it in actual life size was startling. I stood before a beautiful double bed, with a golden mosaic above proclaiming this as belonging to the family of Charles Pigeon. One might be forgiven for thinking Charles was a writer, for he is depicted sitting up in his waistcoat, open book and pen in his hands. At first I thought he was reading a poem to his wife Léonie who, also fully clothed, lies next to him. Pigeon was actually an inventor who made a fortune with his bicycle and other lamps.
Now it had taken me nearly an hour to arrive at the Dreyfus grave, or rather graves. For interred here were also his wife Lucy and his adult children. And carved below Alfred Dreyfus’ name is that of his granddaughter Madeleine Levy, deportee par les Allemands, disparue a Auschwitz a l’âge de 25 ans. I had just finished reading The Paris Children, by Gloria Goldreich, which tells Madeleine’s story as a novel. But it was not fiction. Unhappily, it was real, the reality borne out by many, many other Jewish family graves which also listed – but did not contain – relatives mort en deportation. Who died as a result of deportation.
I had been keeping an eye on the sun, and now saw that it was close to setting. But I still had plenty of time as I retraced my steps to where I had entered. It was still light, though rapidly becoming dusky. Ah, I thought, l’heure bleu, the blue hour romanticized and bottled by Guerlain. So imagine my surprise when I found the gate shut.
My first reaction was not to panic. It wouldn’t help. I had a cell phone, but its power had run out. And who would I call? I learned later (of course) that there is a cemetery employee who rides around the grounds on a bicycle, ringing a little bell to let visitors know the gates will be locked in five minutes. But I had not heard him.
It was now dark – except for the lights in some windows of the adjacent apartment building. A fine kettle of fish, I thought, and wondered at the meaning that lay behind this phrase.
Well, I thought, what’s the worse that could happen? I would have to spend the night in the cemetery. Actually, the idea almost appealed to me. I imagined stretching out quite comfortably on the Pigeon tomb, perhaps snuggling between M and Mme. I was only concerned about whether my light sweater would do as a blanket.
Then I noticed a small car parked beside a little house. Of course, the caretaker! I knocked on the door of the house, and the caretaker’s wife came down – he was busy securing the grounds – and let me out. I was both relieved and disappointed. Spending the night there would have made a good story.
Jane S. Gabin is an independent educational consultant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. A keen visitor to Paris, her novel, “The Paris Photo,” was published in 2018.
Pere Lachaise cemetery – a surprisingly pleasant place to wander!