10 December 2006

A trip to Pere Lachaise

Oscar Wilde's tomb is a place that any self-respecting gay must visit when in Paris, regardless of whether they've read or liked a word he wrote.

Pere Lachaise cemetery is one of the city’s treasures, an ideal spot for a peaceful stroll down broad leafy avenues or along narrow paths between the tombs. For those with aspirations to mingle with the famous, this is an opportunity not to be missed: a diva like Maria Callas wouldn’t have been seen dead fraternising with the general public in her lifetime, but now the great unwashed can have revenge.

One recommends stopping at the tomb of Mr Victor Noir; his name is guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of all Parisian gay men. Fate dealt the murdered journalist a cruel blow, but it seems nature had been generous indeed, and he will have brought great pleasure throughout his short life if the bronze model cast of his body is to scale… and it has to be seen to be believed. Brings a tear to my eye whenever I pass, staining his bronze monument with another hasty rub.

Returning to Oscar, whenever I stand in quiet contemplation of the elegant tomb, for his bodily remains lie below a sandstone monument of a mythical creature in flight, often I wonder what will grace my own splendid sepulchre; given it’s inordinate size, I consider that a few simple understated words like ‘Please excuse my dust’ might be appropriate.

Dear Oscar was transferred to his final resting place in 1909, and his monument, donated by a female admirer, was unveiled in 1914. Unhappily, the cemetery conservator determined that the depiction of genitalia on the Sphinx was indecent and refused to have it revealed for public display. Despite public protests, he would not yield. Eventually a compromise was reached and a fig leaf was placed over the offending parts. Alas, the offences to poor Oscar were not quite over: one night in 1922, a group of students entered the cemetery determined to set things right and free him from the indignity of his fig leaf. Unfortunately, when they hacked away at the leaf, a substantial part of the statue's offending parts were severed. Local legend says that for years they served as a paperweight in the cemetery conservator's office.

No longer able to deface Mr J Morrison’s tombstone, uncouth youths mark Oscar’s tombstone with graffiti: I have no objection to its being spontaneously covered with little lipstick kisses, but those who write epigrams like ‘Man, you were great’ ought to be punished severely: such witless drivel must have Oscar throwing a hissy-fit in his grave.

My own first visit was in May 1997 and I was certainly not the only gay who called to pay tribute that afternoon: I have a fond memories of two gentlemen met on the way out of the cemetery, nodding in acknowledgement as I passed. Since returning to Paris, I have accompanied several other well-wishers, for Oscar's tomb appears to have become the most popular spot in the cemetery, with other more private spots nearby...

The inscription on the tombstone is taken from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, encapsulating why all gay men ought come in pilgrimage. Rest in peace, Oscar.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful movie (and story) about Pere Lachaise :


If you like it, please share it with your friends.