Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Just a Little Kiss

Among the things we did in Paris last summer was to visit Pere LaChaise Cemetery. It's a popular tourist spot, and I think it really is worth the time it takes to stroll through there. Even if I did get my phone stolen by a pickpocket right next to the cemetery. Dozens of famous writers, artists, musicians and politicians are buried there. Jim Morrison, Frederick Chopin, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Heloise and Abelard and on and on and on. The roster of well known residents is much too long to recite here, and it's pretty interesting how that particular cemetery became filled with the rich, famous and notorious. I encourage you to read about it if you don't already know.

I've always thought you could tell a lot about a culture of people by the way they treat their dead. The French do everything with great style and that apparently, extends to burials. Pere LaChaise is gorgeous, not just for its tree lined avenues but mostly for its beautiful tombs and monuments. They are so unique and truly pieces of art. It's just fascinating to see them, and you could literally spend hours there. One of these days when I get around to it I'll post some pictures of the stones.

One of the most visited plots in that cemetery is the grave of writer Oscar Wilde. Visitors include fans of his stories and poetry and those who see him as an icon for being true to yourself. He died penniless in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, following two years of hard labor for a homosexuality conviction. I love the quote that is attributed to him as he neared death, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go." Although he was not originally buried at Pere LaChaise, he was finally placed there when his writings made enough money for the move to Pere LaChaise and the sculpture of the art deco monument that flanks his grave. It stands pretty close to the shared grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, although Teen Angel and I hunted high and low forever and couldn't find Gertrude and Alice. I was quite annoyed over that.

In recent years, it somehow became tradition for Wilde fans to kiss his stone with bright red lipstick. And kiss they did. Lip marks covered the bottom half of the monument that was within reach of people's faces.

They covered all parts of the base and the angel, including his face.

And his um, hoodlydoo, which was broken off by vandals years ago. (There is a persistent rumor that the cemetery caretaker used it as a paperweight.)

Despite periodic scrubbings and pleas by Wilde's family and friends to stop, fans didn't. And the lipstick seeped into the rock, threatening the integrity of the monument.

His family begged folks to skip the lipstick, which is what we did when we kissed his stone last August.

I firmly believe family should have the right to dictate how their loved one's grave should be treated, and if they don't want lipstick on it, there shouldn't be lipstick on it. Besides, we wouldn't want to vandalize something so sacred. However, I completely understand why people do it. For some weird, almost inexplicable reason, it seems perfectly appropriate for Oscar's resting place. I can't help but think he would have enjoyed the attention, and frankly, there's a good chance he appreciated a good tube of lipstick. When you're standing in front of his monument it just seems a fitting tribute. However, it became too much for his family.

Last night, Teen Angel discovered that about three months after we were there, they scrubbed Oscar's stone and put a glass wall around it. It is now clean and lipstick free and out of reach from grease stained lips.
Photo Courtesy: Reuters

It appears we were some of the last folks who ever got to kiss the stone. I completely understand why his family did what they did, but I'm glad we had the chance to witness that little bit of history before it changed. It was a delicious little salute to personal freedom and a spirited life. Je vous salue, Oscar! Or as we say in Kentucky, I'm glad you got to see us.


Jan n Jer said...

Very intersting...I agree with the family...glad they cleaned up the headstone and preserving it for years to come!

Linda said...

This was interesting. I can completely understand the family's wishes, but it is a shame that they had to go to those lengths!