Haunt: a place for spending time or for socializing
I have a confession to make. I have a secret fascination with a place most people avoid. No, it’s not the dentist office—I really like my dentist. And it’s not the Division of Motor Vehicles, either. As peculiar as it may seem, a place that has always drawn me like a magnet is le cimetière (the cemetery). Some of you might think that this a bit macabre, but I truly enjoy pleasantly spending a sunny afternoon wandering among the gravestones. If you have ever had the “pleasure” of this, you know that there is a mixture of solemnity as well as peacefulness that cannot be found in many places. Somehow, while walking among the gravestones, you can feel that there must be a future because there has been a past.
It may have started back in the early 1980s when we lived in Williston, Vermont near the big city of Burlington. We had bought our first house (of many) in a new little development that had once been a cow pasture. Through our back door, we could walk out into our tiny backyard past our neighbor’s house, bidding “hello” to Susie, their cow, and we would end up at the Chittenden Cemetery. To me, New England cemeteries have a mystique all their own mostly because sometimes, they have been around from the beginning of our American history. Last names chiseled on gravestones are sometimes still found in the local phone book as well as being linked to noteworthy deeds in the town history books.
Ever since then, I’ve lured Steve into almost any cemetery we may pass. We have explored new jogging routes and happened upon a family cemetery and paused our running to check it out. We play the “find the oldest ‘resident’ game” and then try to figure out the family tree from the headstones or nearby markers. Often, we are sobered by the realization of how difficult the lives of those buried must have been when we see evidence of young children predeceasing their parents or a litany of names of people who have died in a short span of time of each other, probably from some kind of epidemic. Discovering centenarians (100+ years old) wins the finder the “prize” for the day (usually involving something to do with the dishes).
There are many French cemeteries that have existed longer than those in America. I have a little list of those I would like to visit. Not an especially ancient one, but still at the top of the list, is Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which started hosting the remains of the French who’s who in 1804, although it is not restricted to just famous French people. One of the most visited graves is that of Jim Morrison of The Doors. Also interred there are Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, the actors Yves Montand and his wife, the Academy Award-winning French actress Simone Signoret, and Marcel Marceau, the famous mime.
Here in Grenoble we have the Saint-Roch Cemetery (Cimetière Saint-Roch), the first municipal cemetery in the city of Grenoble, established in 1810. It’s located right next to the Isère River and has over 25,000 graves. It surprised me to discover when researching this article that Grenoble had been a major glove manufacturing center in the 19th century, and the tombs of these manufacturers are considered the most important in the cemetery. As I walked down the lanes, I saw last names that we have seen time and again these past eight months living here. Place “this” and rue “that” (fill in a last name) were named after people whose family monuments I now stood before. Sculptors (tailleurs de pierres), painters, Napoleonic military leaders, and mayors of Grenoble rest among the common people lying beneath this Grenoble soil.
Although the present cemetery was established in 1810, in the 15th century it had been the original site of Hôpital des Infez (Hospital of the Infected) that ministered to plague victims. There was a cemetery and a chapel situated on the adjoining land to bury and pray for those unlucky victims of the pestilence who died in the hospital. When the later cemetery was developed, it was christened St. Roch after that protector of plague victims. In the center of the cemetery is a fenced-off area with simple white crosses atop the graves of WWI soldiers, including eight American soldiers, who died in battle .
The day I visited Saint Roch the graves were overflowing with fresh flowers probably placed the day before, a Sunday, by family visitors. The grave sites range from those with very simple headstones to the more elaborate with above-ground rectangular monuments and even chapel-like structures. They often have permanent ceramic flower arrangements and granite plaques engraved with affectionate expressions displayed on stands. With deepest respect for both the dead and the artisans who made these monuments, I’m including pictures of some of the more memorable tombs.
Hover near the bottom of the slideshow and click on the square to stop and look.