As a child, cemeteries filled me with a creepy, brooding horror and deep sorrow, long before I had a family member or pet die. There was a huge cemetery across from my grandmother’s house, and a small one next to an uncle’s home. I disliked them intensely and thought they should be hidden. I was not frightened of them – I did not want to accept death.
As I grew older, I became more detached about cemeteries and the inevitability of mortality. I also developed a love of the macabre so that I appreciated gloomy graveyard aesthetics, at least in the abstract But it wasn’t until I attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, that my feelings about them truly changed. There is a small cemetery on the campus, the Pioneer’s cemetery, that is old and charming.
The photo below looks rather more sprawling than the actual place, which is far cozier. It managed, with its green peacefulness and crumbling stones, to transform the grimness they usually evoked into a sad but contemplative peace.
That contemplative peacefulness inhabits Heddy Honigmann’s exquisite documentary, FOREVER, set in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
From the very first time I watched it, I moved instantly into a calm, meditative space, filled with serenity yet still attuned to the poignant stories of love and loss that were related by the visitors to Père Lachaise. The main them is the inspiration that dead artists gift the living. The film is woven with several strands of , accented with separate stories. There is the thread of the pianist who remembers her father through playing Chopin.
Proust is paid homage in expected and quite unexpected ways, beginning with the woman who comes to tend his grave (along with several other artists and poets). The first French group we see visit the grave because Proust is famous, but have read little or none of his work. But later, a young South Korean man tells us that he has come to Paris to visit Proust’s grave because he was so enamoured of In Search of Lost Time – having read it in Korean. My favorite is the artist who began by loathing Proust, came to love him a decade later, and to create an amazing homage (too good a surprise to spoil – see the film).
The search for Jim Morrison’s grave is a wry joke, for the rock star’s grave is never shown only pointed out with signs and directions to the stray seekers.
For a time, this was the most visited grave in the cemetery. He still receives visitors, but fewer now, who bring tributes of wine and rose.
The bust on the grave was first vandalized, then stolen.
The most beloved site is the tomb of Oscar Wilde, though it has only a brief moment in the film, thousands of visitors come every year. Thousands added a lipstick kiss to the stone. Over the years, the oils and chemicals in the lipstick imprints were eroding the stone!
From The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the verse reads:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long unbroken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn
Today the tomb has been scrubbed and is surrounded by a (kissable) glass enclosure. The tomb, by Jacob Epstein, was suitably controversial in its day. Like Jim Morrison’s grave, it has been vandalized as well as kissed. In Wilde’s case, the testicles of the statue were removed. No one knows now where they are, though there was a rumor that the cemetery manager used them as a paperweight.
The movie is filled with silence like an indrawn breath and with the elegiac whisper of leaves in the wind. But there is also music from both the living and the dead. The lovely Yoshino Kimura plays Chopin in honor of her father, Maria Callas sings of the heaven, an Iranian taxi driver offers one of the classic Persian songs that are his great love
We also hear the haunting voice of the forgotten cabaret singer, Danielle Messia. She made only two albums, and died of cancer at 27.
She is the special favorite of one of the graveyard guides, Bertrand, with whom I fell a little in love. When he talked of Danielle Messia, he said he know of only one other visitor to her grave, a woman who once drove 300 miles to be with her on her birthday. He is quite eloquent in describing what the cemetery means to him.
Heddy Honigmann is the child of holocaust survivors. Born in Peru, she traveled widely and lives now as Dutch citizen. In Forever, she also includes stories of those who fled death, fled persecution—refugees who found sanctuary by journeying to Paris.
Not only artists are remembered, but also the husbands and lovers, the family members who shaped the lives of those who come to visit their resting place.
One of the most moving stories is that of a woman who found the love of her life in her fifties, a man twenty years longer. They had only three years of joy before he died, suddenly and strangely, from a bee sting. She tends his grave. The depth of her mourning is palpable, but so is the overwhelming intensity of her love. It is a testament to him, and also a gift to us.
So there is sorrow in the movie, but also a gentle and pervasive joy. It captures perfectly Thornton Wilder’s quote, “The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.”
To see the trailer for Henny Honnigmann’s FOREVER, click on the image below.