Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Ghost Story Redux

          I mentioned in a previous post that my sister had a friendly encounter with what I am claiming, for purposes of this blog*, was a ghost at Père Lachaise Cemetery this spring.
          It was a deeply UNsatisfying ghost story, I have to admit. The touch of a spectral hand on her back—and that was it? Where's the story? Where's the dramatic arc? The tension? The shivers? There has to be more, I kept telling myself. We are people Things Happen To; any ghost who patted my sister on the back has to have a history with her, because the oddly inexplicable doesn't happen to either of us without there being some really good backstory. It's just the rule.
          Yesterday, I remembered the backstory. Because this spring was not our first trip to Père Lachaise.
          When K and I were living in Paris, my sister visited us, and one of the sights (or sites, as you like) she asked to see was Père Lachaise. She was researching funerary statuary at the time, and Père Lachaise is jam-packed with monuments and statues and bas-reliefs that she wanted to photograph.

Monument to the dead. The door to the ossuary is at the left, behind the truck.
©Jeannie Thomas
          In addition to monuments to individuals, Père Lachaise also contains a moving Monument to the Dead that we didn't know was there until we happened upon it. J snapped a bunch of photos while I translated the inscription for her, and then stood by, idly watching three cemetery workers offloading small wooden boxes from a truck parked nearby. One of the workers, who must have been a tour guide in another life, said hello and asked if we knew anything about the Monument.
          We admitted entire ignorance. Well, he said, did you know it's actually an ossuary? And that open door you see over there, where we're taking the boxes in, that is the entrance. Would you like to see inside?
          Would we like to see inside an ossuary?! Is Halloween the best holiday in the calendar? Of course we wanted to see the ossuary.

In the ossuary with our helpful tour guide. The wooden boxes behind me
are the remains of residents of Père Lachaise.
©Jeannie Thomas

          We learned that the occupants of graves that don't have a perpetual maintenance contract are exhumed when their contracts are up, then cremated.** The remains are packed into individual wooden boxes which are then transferred to the ossuary and placed communal crypts. When a crypt is full, it is sealed with large stone slabs, and the names of the individuals in that crypt are engraved on the slabs. We even learned how many francs a letter the stonecarver charged for the engraving.
          Best. Ossuary. Tour. Ever.

Sealed crypt with the names of the residents
engraved on it.
©Jeannie Thomas

Detail of engraving. Because I love type.
©Jeannie Thomas

          As we were leaving, we noticed a black plastic bag splayed open near the door, a femur and part of a skull visible.
          And those, I believe, were the mortal remains of the spectre that tagged my sister this spring. Mon Dieu, it must have said to itself when it saw her. I remember you, Madame. You visited me in the ossuary. How nice to see you again.

*Also for any other purposes.
**The graves are reused. Very ecological.

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