Life — in all its unexpected and routine layers — is always on display in and around Paris’ lesser-known Cimetière du Montparnasse.
In Paris, people leave expired metro tickets, coins, stones, and kisses on the headstones of famous cultural figures. These gestures are symbolic rather than personalized, and whatever you leave will either drift off into the wind or end up in the garbage. All of this is for tourists, of course: resident Parisians with ties to a particular grave leave flowers. One woman, on a morning in late September 2021, retrieved a basket of dead chrysanthemums. I saw her. Amidst 35,000 plots and over 300,000 buried people, this elderly woman knew exactly where to go and exactly what she’d left. Across the path sat another woman, nursing a newborn baby. At this time of year, the leaves were just starting to turn. The air was crisp.
Cimetière Montparnasse is not Paris’ most famous cemetery. When in the mood for something historic and brooding, most tourists visit the massive Cimetière Père Lachaise, the world’s most popular necropolis. But Montparnasse, which is more centrally located and less frequented, offers the same byronic intrigue, plus a number of pilgrimage-worthy graves. Famous figures buried here include existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, pioneering feminist philsopher Simone de Beauvoir, 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, filmmaker Serge Gainsbourg, former French President Jacques Chirac, American cultural critic Susan Sontag, and, amongst others, the world’s first self-proclaimed anarchist.
Many of these burials make contextual sense at Montparnasse: Once a major gathering spot for artists and writers in the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood had a reputation for attracting free-thinkers.
Today it remains busy and diverse. On Saturdays you will find a marché en plein air just adjacent to the cemetery’s periphery. Brilliant strawberries, whole fish, very distinct cheeses — it’s all sold here. Corner cafés are packed, and some of the city’s best crêperies open their doors to eager eaters. A major train station is right around the corner, while the Latin Quarter is within relatively short walking distance: just 15–30 minutes depending on your pace.
Life’s everyday rhythms — movement, consumption, interaction — ebb and flow in this neighborhood. But inside the cemetery’s walls, what exists on the outside ceases to matter, at least in terms of urban sprawl. Something about the space’s graves — many low to the ground, others strictly vertical — alerts your mind to the up and down: what lies beneath, what remains above. In this specific context, your mind can’t help but arrive at the macabre image of subterranean physical remains, their spirits ascended to the heavens.
Luckily, none of this makes the experience spooky, only spatially singular. You’ve never been to a place so figuratively sandwiched.
But then it goes deeper. Looking up into the actual sky, central Paris’ sole skyscraper is the only visual reminder of what lies beyond the cemetery’s walls. Tour Montparnasse, generally considered a modernist eyesore, is situated right next to its sister cemetery. In this way the ancient is juxtaposed with the outdated. And just as theological curiosity took your gaze from grave to sky, just as you’ve begun contemplating where exactly all these spirits could possibly go, you’re immediately reminded of our corporate condition as this reflective, navy behemoth towers over you. But all is well because this thought, like others you have in the cemetery, is a fleeting one. In some way, the skyscraper actually adds contextual richness — makes you a bit grateful that all shades of beautiful and less beautiful can exist in this world at the same time.
The Tour Montparnasse is the tallest layer, then there’s the cemetery walls, then there’s the vertical, mini chapels; the single monuments to a person or family, the “normal” sized gravestones, followed by the understated tombs that lie flat to the ground. Then, presumably, there are the remains of those buried here, followed by dark, moist earth, followed by a layer you wouldn’t expect: the skeletal remains of some six million more people. Skulls upon skulls, femurs upon femurs — underground tunnels, once limestone quarries, are now home to innumerable unknowns that came before. A very popular, walkable mausoleum, these catacombs are more famous than any Parisian cemetery, skyscraper, or outdoor market. Walk a few blocks from the cemetery’s entrance to head straight down into these depths with a guide as your leader. If you do, at some point, the cemetery — with all its other human remains — will likely float above you.
But really, it’s probably a better idea to just imagine the catacombs and stay in the cemetery — it’s more peaceful here, less freaky.
More pleasant, less people. And in assessing all this place’s layers, you have a lot to think about. Specifically, as you’re face-to-face with physical proof of your and everyone else’s mortality, you think about how layers relate to your own life. Looking back, the layers of a life somehow all bleed more or less seamlessly into one another — definitive breaks here and there, for sure, but so much of it feels more flou, which is French for blurry, fuzzy, imprecise. Flashback to childhood Sunday school: For everything there is a season. A time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. Thank you for this, Ecclesiastes.
Here, the changing autumn air and the breeze and the trees and the people make sense of life and its layers. And with this in mind, in such close physical proximity to stages of being, somehow all of this — whatever it is — is okay.
Made to spend.