Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Toussaint or Not Toussaint?
Over here the big holiday of the season is Toussaint, All Saints Day, which gives the kids a 10-day school holiday. When I was a kid, 10 days off from school would trump any amount of candy gotten trick-or-treating. Toussaint is also the day when families visit cemeteries, clean graves, and bring flowers to their late loved ones. Whatever they lose on the sale of pumpkins for Halloween, merchants make it up on the sale of pots and pots of flowers. Impromptu florist shops are set up at cemetery gates, like this one at Montparnasse Cemetery, where we went to see how this holiday is celebrated.
Like at Père Lachaise, the more famous Parisian cemetery on the other side of town, many celebrities are buried here and there is a map at the entrance indicating where their graves can be found. We started out looking for them and did find Serge Gainsbourg, the iconic French songwriter/singer. Like Jim Morrison's, his grave has various tributes from fans, including many métro tickets in homage to his song “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” .
We got distracted while looking for other graves (Alfred Dreyfuss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Seberg and others are buried here) and just wandered around. There are fewer free-standing tombs here than at Père Lachaise and most of the gravestones are flat, but can be elaborate nonetheless.
This one has a sculpture by Niki de Sainte-Phalle to her friend buried there, whom she describes as a bird who flew away too soon.
We came across intriguing stories as well. This is one of two stones erected by the nation for young medical interns who died of cholera in 1849 while working in a hospital for poor women during an epidemic.
Many of the family tombs are kept locked and this older couple apparently didn't have the key but it didn't stop them from decorating the grill with flowers to remember their dead.
It was an interesting experience wandering around a cemetery as if looking for the address of a party, people going left and right, looking for graves of family or reknowned strangers, carrying gifts of flowers instead of wine, and the mood was party-ish as well. The trees were decorated in their best outfits and most visitors were in a good mood. All in all, I prefer it to Halloween, but it's a long time since I went trick-or-treating.