But this wouldn't be a token visit to a few ancient headstones marred by acid rain. No, this would be a journey: a pilgrimage made in the same steps as thousands of people before me. I would visit the famed Pere-Lachaise cemetery to view firsthand the history of the French and the beauty of its ornate monuments honoring the dead. I would experience much more than the average traveler to this locale, who mostly came to see one thing: the final resting place of Doors singer Jim Morrison.
Exiting the Metro station, I was immediately confronted by street peddlers hawking Doors posters and Morrison t-shirts, along with maps to the cemetery grounds. Evidently Jim's followers had passed this way before.
As I would discover, Pere-Lachaise is the city's largest cemetery, spanning more than 105 acres. It's an overwhelming place where the past refuses to be denied.
"It's as big as a football field," the docent at the entrance told me. "That's what I always tell Americans."
I didn't dispute his observation. He smiled a big, French smile and handed me a map. I peered up at the wall of the cemetery behind him. The tops of marble monuments poked over the wall, with spindly, leafless trees stretched high above them.
"Really," I said, undaunted. He smiled again and directed me through the entrance in the wall to the first street inside Pere-Lachaise.
Yes, streets. Pere-Lachaise is composed of many cobblestone lanes that are slightly wider than a car. Between the streets lie graves and monuments and marble statues, all randomly jumbled together. Grave sites are lost behind monolithic headstones and family monuments. The streets themselves form a labyrinthine maze, which is difficult to navigate even with a map. Some roads end abruptly, and scattered paths wind off into forests of headstones.
Picking my way through the beautiful statues and tailored gardens, I wandered to the base of a hill piled high with tombs. I decided to take some pictures of the sea of graves from a high point so I climbed the winding road to the top.
I snapped a few frames and turned to make my descent when I came face to face with Jim Morrison. Not his ghost, but a small image of his face that had been spray-painted on a tomb using a stencil. As I walked around that day, I noticed several of these eerie images. I half-expected to see him walking among the graves, writing songs about this serene spot in the city.
The cemetery was once the site of a Jesuit hospice and the retirement home of Father La Chaise, the renowned confessor of Louis XIV. Pere-Lachaise fell into the hands of creditors when the Jesuits were expelled from Paris. Napoleon I renamed it The Eastern Cemetery in 1804, but the original name was later restored.
On my visit, I found mostly tourists in Pere-Lachaise, save for the few French people strolling around. An elderly French woman noticed my map and ran over to me, giggling. She pointed at it, apparently asking me the way to a certain grave, but her English was worse than my French, so we parted ways with apologetic smiles.
As I traversed the cobblestones I saw the graves of many of France's best and brightest, including world-renowned writers Oscar Wilde, Moliere and Colette, artist Eugene Delacroix, dancer Isadora Duncan, actress Sandra Bernhardt and composer Frederic Chopin. It was a nice relief from the Paris-travel-bargains .Some of them sported elaborate and unusual monuments. Wilde's tomb featured a sculpture of a winged man that was stained by lipstick kisses. But the most harrowing monuments were those erected for Holocaust victims. Some of these sculptures depicted ghostly, corpse-like figures, reflecting the suffering endured by millions in Hitler's concentration camps.
In one corner, a bronze plaque attached to the cemetery wall marks the spot where the last rebels of the Paris commune were shot in 1871. These Parisians revolted against the French government, refusing to recognize or obey it. They were buried where they fell.
After several hours wandering the grounds, I noticed that I was only a few yards from what many consider the defining point of Pere-Lachaise-the grave of Jim Morrison. I witnessed a stream of people heading for it so I joined the line and prepared for the culmination of my pilgrimage to the cemetery.
But the grave-a small bronze plaque on a rectangular stone block, nestled between two larger grave sites-failed to impress me. It hardly stood up to the great marble edifices, stained glass decorations and carved likeness I had seen throughout the day. The plaque read simply: "James Douglas Morrison: Poet, Singer, Composer."
Here, followers of the legendary singer danced, chanted, drank, toked, cried and worshipped. Solemn visitors draped flags over his headstone and transformed it into a hash bar. Nearly three decades of graffiti covered the site with such cryptic notes as "Stoned Immaculate," and "Jim's reincarnation as a cat."
As I stood there with the others who visited that day, staring at the shriveled flowers on the stone and reading the graffiti, I realized that Jim didn't need a huge monolith to be remembered. His music and compositions signify his importance to people all over the world.
When he died in 1971 under mysterious circumstances (officially recorded as heart failure due to a drug overdose), his fans were crushed. They made their pilgrimage here to this dwarfed headstone inside the walls of Pere-Lachaise to pay their respects to this man and his work. He was the reason for the journey, not the grave itself.
Leaving the quiet of the cemetery, I stepped out onto the crowded street. I saw the same docent handing out maps to a group of young people. "As big as a football field," I heard him say happily.