As you might have already guessed, Halloween isn’t really a big thing over here in France. You can find a few pumpkin decorations in stores (mainly in chocolate shops) and a few costume parties but it’s nothing to the extent in the US.
I've been told that Halloween did have a few years of popularity in France, but it was followed by a backlash that squelched the holiday. Some say it’s because it was deemed to be “too American.” And I’ve heard others say it’s because it interfered with the French holiday that occurs the very next day on November 1st: La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day).
The truth is probably a mix of both, but I can attest that it is possible to attend an epic Halloween party one night and still crawl out of bed to make it to the cemetery the next day. (And whoever says that French people don’t get into dressing up for Halloween have not seen the level of detail and intricacy of the costumes I saw - they all upstaged me! But that’s for another time…) Why the cemetery? Because La Toussaint is a day to visit the graves of relatives and pay respects.
Last year I visited Paris’ most well-known cemetery, Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, on La Toussaint. It was a special day to go as many people bring chrysanthemums to leave at the graves and everything pops with their vibrant colors.
This year I realized that I have only been to that one cemetery in Paris and wanted to take the opportunity to stop by another. This time it was to the major cemetery in the south (once referred to the Southern Cemetery), Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Like Père-Lachaise, there are markers to divide up the land into sections. Though I wasn’t really doing much searching for specific graves like I have in the former. Here in the Montparnasse Cemetery I was more into walking around and admiring both the beautiful flowers as well as spotting interesting tombstones.
It seems like these days trips to visit one’s relatives at the cemetery are done with less frequency than times past. I wonder why that is? Is it because we surround ourselves with photos and visual memories of our loved ones these days? That the physical place for the deceased is less important than our memories of a life? Whatever the case, it is nice to see those who do come out on Toussaint to brighten up graves with flowers. It’s a common sight to see people carrying mums, watering cans, and even little brushes and such to clean off the tombs. In a autumnal season of nature slowly withering away before winter, things are made anew at the cemeteries across France. And it’s a beautiful event to witness.
The Montparnasse Cemetery certainly isn’t as immense as Père-Lachaise, where you can lose the sense of being in the city on its grounds. In Montparnasse, while it is a certainly sizable cemetery, you can still see the Tour Montparnasse or beautiful Haussmannian style buildings in the distance. You don’t forget that you’re in Paris, yet there’s a buffer of serenity that makes for a peaceful stroll despite its location.
I think of Père-Lachaise as the resting place of many famous people. Édith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison are just a handful of the “VIP” names that can be found there. Montparnasse has its share of famous residents as well, but I wasn’t there to really “visit” anyone in particular. I did take a look for Charles Garnier’s tombstone, the architect of Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house. For dreaming up such an extravagant building, I was a bit surprised to see his modest resting place.
I was expecting something more grandiose. Or at least more creative, like the grave of sculpture César Baldaccini:
It's a shame it has taken me so long to get here, and I already want to go back to explore more of the lovely sculptural art! It may seem like an odd thing to be on a trip itinerary to the City of Love, but if you have an interest in discovering an outdoor art museum of sorts, consider a stop here. And if you prefer to contemplate the darker side of Paris, you can continue the theme with a five minute walk to the Catacombs.
Do you ever walk through cemeteries as a "tourist?"
PLAN YOUR VISIT:
Cimetière du Montparnasse
3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014 Paris, France
Open daily: 3/16/14 - 11/5/2014 Monday-Friday 8:00am-6:00pm, Saturday 8:30am-6:00pm, Sunday 9:00am-6:00pm; 11/6/2014-3/15/2015: Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:30pm, Saturday 8:30am-5:30pm, Sunday 9:00am-5:30pm