By Paul Mattesini | EF Tour Director
Tomorrow (Wednesday 30th November) is an important date as it marks the unveiling of Oscar Wilde’s restored tomb at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. When I began touring in the early 1990s the one tomb that many wanted to see at Père Lachaise was that of Jim Morrison. The Doors front man had died in Paris and his grave had long been a place of pilgrimage for fans. Jim’s grave always had a police officer on duty and had suffered from over-zealous admirers attempting to take parts of it away or putting graffiti on surrounding tombs. Whilst at Père Lachaise, in this quiet and pleasant eastern neighborhood of Paris, I would take the chance to show groups some of the other famous names buried in the grounds as well as the striking Holocaust memorials. Oscar Wilde’s was always one of the tombs to show people and a great excuse for sharing some of his observations.
Oscar Wilde also died in Paris (in 1900) but he was bankrupt and his friends could offer him only un enterrement de sixième classe (a sixth-class burial) at Bagneux, outside the city. Over the following years his friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, managed – through the sale of Wilde’s works – to annul Wilde’s bankruptcy and purchase a burial plot “in perpetuity” at Père Lachaise. The following year Helen Carew, one of Ross’s friends who had known Wilde in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to erect a monument by the young sculptor Jacob Epstein. The commission, a flying naked angel inspired by the British Museum’s Assyrian figures, was finally unveiled in 1914, surviving intact until the early 1960s, when the angel was vandalized, part of it being hacked off and stolen.
It seems that in the late 1990s a new trend developed. Fans of Oscar would visit the tomb and, unlike previous generations who had left pieces of paper with scrawled messages at the site, decided to kiss the stone. Lipstick kisses soon began to adorn the piece. Seemingly harmless but it appears that the oils in lipstick cause great damage to the stone and so something had to be done. The obvious thing to do was, firstly, ask people not to do it (didn’t work) and, secondly, introduce heavy fines for anyone caught puckered up to the memorial (didn’t work). So, finally, the decision was made to protect the tomb by restoring it, cleaning it and then placing a Perspex surround. The result is what is being unveiled this week. I am undecided about the decision to place a barrier between people and the grave although the tomb needs to be protected. However, those who suggest Oscar himself would not have minded the kissing, and would have appreciated the style of tribute, might be onto something. To me, the lipstick kisses seem to have added a nice touch.
If you find yourself in Paris then a trip to Père Lachaise is easy to fit in. You can see the tomb of Victor Noir, a journalist who was shot dead on a Paris street in 1870. The bronze figure on top of the tomb depicts Noir, lying in the street after he had been shot. Elsewhere you will find the tombs of Chopin, Proust and the famous singer Edith Piaf amongst a host of other famous names. It can be a bit confusing navigating your way around the grounds (I strongly recommend the one euro plan of the site) but it is certainly a worthwhile distraction.