Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A visit to Pere-Lachaise in the early 1820s

The cemetery of Pere la Chaise, of which the above engraving presents a view, at once correct and striking, is one of the most interesting places that a person going to France can visit. Indeed, no thing can be more striking and affecting to the imagination. It is only sufficient to go there, to be convinced how true the affection which the mothers, sons, and sisters of France, have for each other. How simple, and yet how tender, the inscriptions upon the tombs! There the sister goes to renew the tender recollection of her sister, and a son to place a garland over the grave of his mother. With the English, the dead are scarcely ever visited, and seldom remembered; but it is not so with the French, who do not think it inconsistent to mix the kindest feelings to their relations with the sociability of a larger circle.

Some persons are of opinion that church-yards are the only proper place for christian burial; on the contrary, the origin of their use in England for that purpose is not of earlier date than the year 750; and agreeably to the old Roman Law of the Twelve Tables, the place of inhumation was ordered to be not within the city, but without its walls. Certainly ground destined for sepulture should, according to the law of the church, be duly consecrated; and when this is the case, it is perfectly immaterial whether it is attached to a church or separated from it; indeed, many of the church-yards in London are at a distance from a church, and it would, perhaps, be well if they were all out of the metropolis, since, as Lord Stowell well observed in one of his learned and elaborate decisions, "They cannot be made commensurate to the demands of a large and increasing population : the period of decay and dissolution does not arrive fast enough, in the accustomed mode of depositing bodies in the earth, to evacuate the ground for the use of the succeeding claimants."

Indeed, most of these cemeteries are narrow, close, filthy, and almost indecent; and though new crypts have been formed in building the new churches, yet for the most part no monuments can be raised in the burial grounds, nor even be affixed to the walls of the sacred edifices.

Not so the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, a chosen spot just without the walls of Paris, where the ashes of Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, repose in charitable vicinity. The circumference of the burial ground is upwards of two miles. The ground is laid out with taste and elegance, diversified in position, beautified with shrubs and flowers, and appropriately adorned with monuments, some interesting from their historical recollections, some touching from the simplicity and tenderness of their inscriptions; but all neat, decent, and appropriate to the solemnity of the scene.

The number of tombs has greatly in creased during the last few years, and fashion and ostentation which play so many freaks on the busy stage of life, intrude their follies and their fripperies even into this quiet and peaceful sanctuary; and the modest stone with its emblematic cross, over which the cypress mourned and the willow fondly drooped, has given place to the obelisk, the pyramid, and the temple.

The tombs and graves in the cemetery are kept in the highest order and repair, and almost all of them are planted with shrubs and fragrant flowers, mingled with the mournful cypress and yew: the acacia tree is also planted in great abundance, and the wild vine spreads its broad leaves and graceful clusters over many of the monuments.

Many of the tombs are interesting on account of the celebrity of the persons they commemorate, and others' for the beauty and simplicity of their inscriptions. Of the former class, the tomb of the poet Delille, which is situated in the higher part of the ground under the shade of a bower of linden trees, is one of the most interesting. Those of Moliere, La Fontaine, Eloisa, and Abelard, Madame Cotton [sic: Cottin], Marshals Massena and Ney, with many others of characters highly distinguished, as well worthy of notice.

As a specimen of the affecting brevity and pathetic simplicity of the inscriptions on tombs in this burial ground we may instance the following. The first is on the monument of a man who died in the
prime of life.

A la memoire de mon meilleur ami.
C’ etoit mon frere.

On another:

Ci git P. N., son epouse perd en lui le plus tendre de ses amis, et ses enfans un modele de vertu.

A little crown of artificial orange blossoms, half blown, was in a glass case at the head of the tablet.

And upon a tomb raised by the parents to the memory of a child.

Ci git notre fils cheri.

The following is a touching epitaph on a young girl:—

A sa famille
Elle apporta le bonheur;
II s'enfuit avec elle!

The following are also among the inscriptions in this celebrated spot :

Le Malheur, l’Amour,
La Reconnoissance,
Au modele de toutes les vertus,
A son excellente Zephirine.

A mon Theodore.

Repose en paix, ma bien aimee. Celeste! demain nous reviendrons te voir.

Tu reposes mon fils, et ta mere
Est dans la douleur!

A notre bon pere
Des fils reconnoissants.

A peine cinq printemps vecut notre Pauline,
C’etoit le gage heureux de l'hymen le
plus doux,
Chacun aimoit son air et sa grace enfantine—
Ah! de notre bonheur le destin fut jaloux!

Many garlands of fresh and sweet flowers are hung upon the graves, and every thing marks the existence of tender remembrance and regret ; it appears as if in this place alone the dead are never forgotten.

Struck with the contrast which our city church-yards present to the burial-ground of the Pere la Chaise, some individuals have projected a scheme for a receptacle of the dead on a large scale in the vicinity of London. They propose to give it the name of the Necropolis, or " City of the Dead;" and mean that it shall be laid out in a style, which for solemnity, taste, and magnificence, may surpass any thing yet undertaken. To what expense do not our opulent individuals often go to erect in their demesnes some monumental record of a friend, perhaps even of a faithful dog, on the banks of a limpid rivulet, near a grotto overhung with weeping willows or shadowed by the mournful cypress! And would they not much rather adorn a spot of consecrated ground, which might always be kept neat and clean, well watched and guarded against violent intrusion, and resorted to by those only whose sentiments were in unison with the melancholy sanctity of the place?—The taste for gardening and for every thing rural is proverbially prevalent among the English; and those who may chance to visit a country church-yard “under the shade of melancholy boughs," looking forth upon the richness and beauty of an extensive landscape, can scarcely fail to breathe a wish that they themselves may repose hereafter amid such still and tranquil scenery.

We cannot, perhaps, better close this article than with the following poem on the cemetery of Pere la Chaise [published 1821], by the late Mr. David Carey, who died in the vigour of age and talent:

When, like-the fleeting forms that fled
ln youth a fair morning from the view,
We sink on death's ungenial bed,
And bid to life and lore adieu.

If aught that once with influence kind
Could chase the mists of sorrow's gloom.
Can please the disembodied mind.
And shed a pleasure o'er the tomb.

Tis when with sympathizing care
Affection rears the votive bower,
And weeping Pity's daughters fair
Trim the lone monumental flower.

As in the precincts of La Chaise,
The hands of beauty nurse the wreath
That spreads the bloom of vernal days
O'er the cold sanctuary of death.

If aught of consolation sweet
Can mingle with the cup of woe,
When, far from each belovd retreat,
Fate lays the hapless stranger low ;

'Tis that his ashes may repose
In peace, where those we love are laid,
Where death has never paled the rose,
And tears of piety are shed.

How sweet to him, when passion's past,
Whose tows were paid at beauty's shrine,
To sleep where Abelard at last,
And his lov'd Heloise entwined.

How sweet to those whose generous breast
Was form’d in nature's school to feel,
In the Elysium of the blest.
To sleep with virtue and Delillc!

And such thy scene of lasting sleep.
So tranquil and so hallow'd now,
La Chaise ! where once in vengeance deep
Dark persecution breath'd his vow.

Where superstition banish'd far
Sweet love and mercy from the ground,
Benignant pity's milder star
A holier feeling spreads around.

Here oft o'er lost affections' bier,
The mother and the lover bend,
To dress with many a flower and tear
The cherish’d child, the parted friend

Here, side by side, in flowery graves,
The Russian and the Spaniard lie,
And peace immortal olive waves
O'er warring nations enmity.

Then mourn not, stranger, though thy doom
Be sorrow's lot, and brief thy days—
If joy can penetrate the tomb,
Thou'It find it here—in Pere la Chaise!

From “The Cemetery of Pere La Chaise,” in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, January 8, 1825, No. 122, pp. 17-19.

No comments: