Visiting a place of mystery, magic and even humor on All Saints Day

November 04, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Diana Jean Schemo is the chief of The Sun's Paris Bureau.

Paris Among the stones and the fallen chestnuts, the wet leaves underfoot, comes the day of communion with generations past. It is the day of sweeping dust from ancient tombstones, of laying potted mums and chrysanthemums, of whispering greetings and confidences to spirits scattered into the unknown. It is All Saints Day.

As if on schedule, the rain begins to fall in the late afternoon, as Madeleine Loubignac threads her way through Pere Lachaise, the enormous cemetery on the edge of Paris, named for the confessor of Louis XIV.

"Well, you've found a grandmother, and I've found a granddaughter," she says with a smile, inviting a stranger to wander with her through this labyrinthine necropolis.

Madame Loubignac, who is 76 years old, used to come here once a month to visit now-gone neighbors, family and friends -- "the illustrious unknowns," she calls them.

Over the years, the famous ones resting here -- the writers Apollinaire, Alfred de Musset and Colette, the occultist Allan Kadar, the composer Chopin -- have joined her circuit of visits. In a sense, they have become approachable, even familiar, in their death, in a way that time or social station or even chance may have forbidden in life.

"This is not a sad place for me," she says.

Indeed, it is a place of mystery, of magic, even of humor. But most of all, it is the bridge between the present and the past, her connective tissue to the cosmos.

"Each time I come, I find something new," Madame Loubignac says, leading the way to her latest discovery. A few steps away is a tomb. "Two brothers rest here," it says. That is all. There are no names, no dates to identify them.

Then it is off to visit the crypt of Gabriel Defraisses, a cousin of her husband.

Mrs. Loubignac remembered the first time she met Gabriel Defraisses. She was a young and shy fiancee then, and Monsieur Defraisses strangely clasped her head to his shoulders and stroked her hair.

"You have the same name as my daughter," he said. Then she learned that his daughter Madeleine had died at the age of 10. She is buried in the same crypt.

"Gabriel, we came to see you," Madame Loubignac says quietly, her hand resting on his name. This tomb she searched for throughout the cemetery when she first began coming here. Someone had told her it faced the church, and she looked for several days. Finally, she was about to give up, she recalls. She lay her hand on a stone to rest, and said, "Gabriel, I'm sorry, but I just can't seem to find you." When she picked up her hand, she saw that it had been resting on his name.

From Monsieur Defraisses, it is a little way up the hill to her old neighbor, Monsieur M. She takes out a tissue and brushes away some dirt from the black marble stone with a gold cross in the corner.

"You know, he always had roaming hands. I used to tell my daughter, 'Watch out for Monsieur M. in the elevator,' " Madame Loubignac recalls. She looks over at the neighboring monument, a statue of a young girl curled up by a tree, her back turned to Monsieur M.

"At least here, he'll never be bored," she says, a naughty smile lighting her face.

"Don't print his name. His son's had a good education, he's made something of himself. He would be embarrassed," she says.

Then it is up the hill, to visit Alfred de Musset. Along the way, we pass Sophie de Grouchy, the Marquise de Condorcet, 1766-1824.

Finally, we reach the tombstone of de Musset, and she recites by heart the inscription:

My dear friends, when I die

Plant a willow at the cemetery

I love its weeping foliage

Its worn paleness is gentle and dear

And its shadow will be light

On the earth where I sleep.

"Ah, there are no willows here," Madame Loubignac says, surveying both sides of the monument. I note from the inscription that the writer died at a rather young age, 47.

"The romantics were never very healthy. They drank too much. It wasn't AIDS back then, but they had their illnesses," she says.

We pass the tombstone of Chopin, crowded with admirers laying flowers and lighting candles. On certain occasions, Chopin lovers flood this lane of Pere Lachaise with his music. But today, it is silent and cramped around the composer.

The entire cemetery seems awash in flowers and candles, filled with tourists peering into guidebooks to locate the famous, speaking French, English, German.

"We'll finish up with the moderns. Apollinaire," Madame Loubignac announces, for it is getting dark beyond the plane trees. The overcast sky seems to be closing in on itself like a secret as we climb the hill.

Guillaume Apollinaire lays lonely, no flowers on his tomb today. On the stone, this sad inscription, written so the letters form the shape of a heart: "My heart seems like flame upside down."

We then approach a clutch of people lighting candles at the grave of Allan Kadar, the father of occultism. Madame Loubignac tells the story of a crippled woman who held Monsieur Kadar's shoulder and prayed to walk again. The prayer worked and now, she visits every week in gratitude, the old lady says. Then, she stands off to one side.

Monsieur Kadar's tomb is a brass bust beneath a stone shelter. His eyes appear to pierce from the grave, and the faithful believe that even dead, or perhaps especially dead, he possesses a certain power.

On the stone shelter above the bust is written:

To be born -- To die

To be reborn again

And to progress without end

Such is the law

One after another, Kadar devotees lay their hands on the brass shoulders and bow their heads in concentration. At the base of the statue are coins, candles, flowers, and wafting all around it, an inexplicably heavy air.

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