Monday, January 26, 2009

Today, Christina and I went to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. It was quite a sight to take in. We didn’t make it all the way around or through the cemetery since we only had about an hour and we wanted to focus on something specific. From an architectural standpoint, the cemetery is a marvel. From the small fraction of the whole to which I was privy today, I was able to distinguish three main architectural choices for the graves. There are the basic stone rectangles that I call sarcophagi. One step up from that, there are the sarcophagi with headstones or statues or ironwork. And then there are the house-sized memorials, ranging from a simple structure with room for one person to stand, to buildings that resemble small churches and sometimes reach two stories or higher up to the sky.

While the gravestone mansions can be absolutely beautiful with ornate stonework and pillared terraces, and the detailed sarcophagi are some of the oldest and most careworn gravestones, my favorites are the simple grave-houses with room for just one person to contemplate the departed. They consist of three walls, a door facing the pathway, and a steepled roof. People walk past most of these markers without a second thought – they are the most common, and to the passer-by, contain nothing of great interest since the outside design is simple. The inside of these structures is dark, hidden by intricate iron-wrought doors or dusty glass panes that protect the sanctity of the interior and dissuade rather than beckon to the casual observer. However, during our class trip to Passy Cemetery, I chanced upon one of these graves without a door, and stepped inside to have a better look. It was then that I discovered the treasure hidden within these comparatively nondescript markers.

Each small grave-house has, just above the top of the door-frame on the opposite wall, a window. These windows range in size and shape, from simple openings to the elements to beautiful creations of glass and color that dazzle the eyes. The trick is to look in at the proper angle, which is achieved by getting as close as you can to the grave-house. This is accomplished either by going inside, or bowing over outside the door and looking up through the curling iron patterns…almost as if you first need to show respect for the deceased before appreciating their masonry memory.

While Christina and I were walking, we found a particularly interesting pair of grave-houses. They were the final resting places of “D. de Schutte et Doornik” and “Schoen et Doornik,” respectively. If they two had been twins, the former would have most definitely been the good twin. We first noticed them because they are tilted away from each other. Logically speaking, this is because there is a rather large tree growing right between and slightly in front of them, and I’m sure the root growth interfered with the foundations of the buildings. However, if one were to abandon the logical perspective and take into account the overall appearance of the twin structures, they lean away from each other because they are opposites, ying and yang of the Doornik clan.

D. de Schutte and Doornik’s grave-house is white, built in the traditional steepled structure of the simpler grave-houses, crowned by a cross and with a six-petaled window above the door looking out to the street. The inner window is yellow stained glass, which gives a golden glow to the inside of the chamber, and the doorstep is framed by two pink and red potted plants. Schoen and Doornik’s final resting place is a horse of a different color (to quote one of the best movies ever). First of all, it is completely blackened, either with age or an unfortunate flammable occurrence…it’s difficult to say. If there was ever a cross on top of its pointed roof, it has since fallen off and indeed there is a chunk of stone missing from the very top, marring the architect’s effort to draw the eyes skyward. Instead one looks up until they reach the jagged edge and stop there, wondering what happened. If there was once a stained glass window on the inside wall, it no longer exists, and the naked opening instead barely illuminates the interior with a cold gray light. Needless to say, there are no potted plants. Due to the tree growing directly between them, the picture I took is divided in half, and the stark differences between the two grave-houses are enough to make it appear as though, if the picture were actually cut in half, the photos were taken on two different days.

It’s fascinating to me how two structures with the exact same architectural principles can appear so differently. The lines of both houses are the same, the windows, the pillars, even the lettering of the deceased’s names. And yet they are polar opposites. The former is clean, wholesome, glowing with an inner light and truly does draw the eye and mind to the heavens. The latter has an air of foreboding, feels slightly sinister and instead pulls your thoughts below, to less pleasant theories about the afterlife.

I also took a picture from the rear side of the twin structures, and it is easy to tell that Schoen and Doornik must have passed away long before D. de Schutte and Doornik were laid in their final resting place. The stones on the back of Schoen and Doornik’s grave are cracked and partly separated, although some effort has been made to patch the damage. It is also leaning more severely to one side, showing the stronger and more long-term influence of the tree’s encroachment. It was from this angle that I realized perhaps Schoen and Doornik’s grave-house was not the evil twin, just the less fortunate of the two. Through the naked window you can look towards the front and through the six-petaled opening to the sky. It was truly beautiful, and was just another gentle reminder that sometimes good and bad, ugly and pure, are only a matter of perspective.

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