I have never been one to visit the dead.
It has nothing to do with religion or anything, I have just always felt that my memories of a lost loved one are stronger than anything that I could find standing in front of a grave.
Despite this, on a recent trip, I found myself drawn to a small cemetery in Paris where the French poet, art critic, and essayist Charles Baudelaire was buried. I had studied, quoted and written about him throughout my university career and even after, could feel the influence of his words in how I observed certain aspects of the world.
Like we make pilgrimages to famous museums to see the great works of art that the likes of Michelangelo, Monet, and Andy Warhol have left behind, I felt a need to make a pilgrimage to Baudelaire’s grave.
Just outside the walls of the cemetery I purchased a single, long stem red rose from a lady with a flower cart. I felt a little silly as I walked through the arched entrance in the cemetery wall and onto a deserted cobblestone street. I had never visited a grave before, especially not one marking someone I hadn’t even known.
It took me about 20 minutes to find the tomb in the confusing maze of headstones. It was the only one, out of all that surrounded it, covered in flowers. I didn’t feel so silly once I realized that I was not the only recent visitor.
Setting my single rose next to a bouquet of lilies and running my fingers over his name, I turned and walked back to the wall and out into the noise of Parisian traffic.
Taking a stroll through a cemetery might sound morbid, but in Europe, 19th century cemeteries are big attractions. Yes, there are ‘quirkier’ visitors that are there to hold vigil for hours in front of the graves of famous figures (Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris attracts some interesting people), but the majority of visitors are your plain old average tourist.
Surrounded by thick stone walls that create a peaceful sanctuary, these cemeteries are laid out like cities with street names and green spaces.
The opulent mausoleums are a study in architecture of the different time periods they were built in, and elaborate grave markers, representing the life of the deceased, turn these burial places into verdant sculpture gardens. In the light of day, these places are like beautiful, outdoor museums.
Death is the ultimate neutralizer, and in these beautiful spaces, you can find dictators buried next to revolutionaries, musicians next to business men and the rich next to the poor.
If you are going to be in Europe this summer, I suggest dropping by the Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest or Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris. They are massive, full of beautiful sculpture and — if it is something that interests you — a bunch of famous historical figures.