It’s chilly in Paris today, as I walk the winding alleyways of Montmatre, no particular destination in mind. The cobbled streets are wearing my boots thin and I already feel a pang of nostalgia for the peasant artists who once roamed this neighbourhood.
Making my way down one of the many steep roads, I stumble upon the old Cimetière de Montmatre. Paris is prime property for the dead and its graveyards never fail to invoke a sense of reflection in me. I’ve always felt that elaborate grave stones were a strange concept, mind you, but there is something utterly beautiful about them, and I can never resist exploring a graveyard’s hidden nooks and crannies, and reading memoirs on the placards of those long deceased, of those whose names I’ve never even heard of.
So, on this day, like on many other before, I decide to make a detour and see what the likes of 19th century scientist Jean Foucault and 18th century German poet Heinrich Heine are up to, in this cemetery that lies below street level in the hollow of an old quarry. Not much, it would turn out, but they still make for good company.
I stroll down one of the winding paths and marvel at the intricate detail on some of the stones; the almost purposeful blandness of others. Black crows overhead screech incessantly and I have the feeling that, however imprudently, they, too, are mourning the dead. It’s eerie and heartbreakingly spectacular here, all at once.
Down one of the passageways, an elderly couple is tending to a grave. They chat cheerfully as they do so and their canine companion wags his tail nervously, while they go about their human business. I wonder what their story is – who it was that they lost and how long it must have taken them to get here, to this point. Was it a daughter, a son? A dear friend with whom they shared meals and holidays and belly-aching laughs?
A little further on, another older woman is frantically unpacking pots of flowers and sweeping the stony ground around one of the less impressive graves. Her movements are quick and jolty and, from where I am standing almost 20 metres away, her unease is almost tangible. I turn away before she has the chance to glance up at me and feel pried on. And as I walk away, I get the unshakable sense that it’s her own sins she is desperately trying to sweep under the carpet. That makes me sad for a moment and I wonder how vast my own unruly garden of sin would be if I tried to tend to it myself.
Making my way back home that afternoon, my thoughts are consumed by the idea of life after death. I decide that, although I’m not sure what heaven might look like, and when speaking of the After I am clearly under-qualified, but of this I am convinced: My story will not end with a marble gravestone, and nor has that of those who have gone before me.
Perhaps Osho Rajneesh (1931-1990), the famous Indian spiritual teacher, was right:
Death is the greatest illusion of all.”