Wild and Wilde: At celebrity cemetery, nature takes on starring role
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Wild and Wilde: At celebrity cemetery, nature takes on starring role
Differing approaches to nature on the left and right sides of the Père-Lachaise cemetery, in Paris, Dec. 6, 2022. The cemetery, whose tombs of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Édith Piaf and many other artistic icons have made it a popular tourist draw, has become a haven for wildlife, too. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

by Constant Méheut

PARIS.- Dry leaves rustled under Benoît Gallot’s footsteps as he rambled his way across the rugged terrain. Stopping by shrubs of laurel and elder, he pulled aside their foliage to uncover a crumbling stone colonnade. A parakeet, perched up in a nearby tree, squawked.

It looked like a scene deep in one of France’s luxuriant forests — but this was inside one of the world’s most visited burial grounds, Père-Lachaise cemetery, nestled between traffic-laden avenues in eastern Paris.

The cemetery has long been known as the final resting place for celebrated artists, including Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Édith Piaf. But in recent years, it has also become a haven for the city’s flora and fauna. Foxes and tawny owls are among the many animals calling it home.

“Nature’s taking back its rights,” said Gallot, the cemetery’s curator, responsible for overseeing grounds maintenance and allocating burial plots, as he continued his trek among tombstones engulfed by vines and weeds.

The greening of the necropolis stems from a decade-old plan to phase out pesticides and turn the cemetery into one of Paris’ green lungs, as the dense capital is redesigning its urban landscape to make it more climate-friendly in the face of rising temperatures.

By encouraging wildlife in a place dedicated to death, these efforts have also brought about a small revolution in the mores of French cemeteries, where traces of nonhuman life have long been seen as disrespectful to the deceased.

“We’ve made a complete turnaround,” Gallot said. Père-Lachaise, he added, shows that “the living and dead can coexist.”

Opened in 1804, the 110-acre cemetery — named after Louis XIV’s confessor, the Rev. François de La Chaise d’Aix — perches on a hillside peering down at central Paris. Its earliest headstones rubbed shoulders with trees and plants across a parklike setting.

But as the site’s reputation grew, its lush greenery receded. First came the arrival of the presumed remains of the playwright Molière and poet Jean de La Fontaine, transferred in 1817, prompting Parisians to want to claim their own final resting places near the illustrious residents. Sculpted vaults and chapels sprouted across the cemetery’s uneven land, nibbling away at wildlife.

Today, some 1.3 million individuals, including Proust, Chopin and Sarah Bernhardt, are interred there, a figure equal to about half of Paris’ living population.

Then, in the second half of the past century, nature retreated farther as a result of intense weeding operations. Unlike in Northern and Central Europe — such as in Britain and Austria, where tombstones spread across verdant landscapes — France and other Latin countries have favored rather austere, stony burial grounds, according to Bertrand Beyern, a cemetery guide and historian.

No sign of life, except for mourners, was to be allowed in, out of respect for the dead.

“The smallest dandelion had to be eliminated,” said Jean-Claude Lévêque, a gardener at the cemetery since 1983. He recalled how, several times a year, he and others would pour gallons of pesticides onto burial plots. “It was the ‘golf green’ mentality.”

That approach started to change in 2011, when the city’s municipal government encouraged Paris’ cemeteries to phase out pesticides, out of environmental concern. Gallot, then working at another cemetery on the capital’s outskirts, said he was initially “very hostile” to the initiative.

But seeing flowers bloom again and birds return to nest won him over.

By 2015, a full ban on weedkillers was in force, and Xavier Japiot, a naturalist working for the Paris municipality, said a “rich ecosystem” had developed as a result.

The kidney-shaped leaves of cyclamen flowers — white, pink or lavender — have popped up between raised crypts. Whole choirs of birds, including robins and flycatchers, have settled in the cemetery’s vast canopy.

Some visitors have found the changes not only enjoyable but also reassuring.

“This natural diversity distracts your attention from death,” said Philippe Lataste, a 73-year-old retiree, who was wandering Père-Lachaise’s cobbled alleys. “It’s less scary.”

The most spectacular burst of wildlife occurred during a time of exceptional mourning: the coronavirus crisis. In April 2020, in a ghostly Paris under lockdown, Gallot came across a pair of foxes and their four cubs in the cemetery, a rare sighting in the city limits.

“To see these cubs at that moment, it felt really good,” Gallot said, recalling a period marked by “nonstop funerals.”

The greening of the site has brought a new pool of visitors, whose total number surpasses 3 million in a typical year. Now, alongside the streams of global tourists hunting for the cemetery’s most famous graves, their noses buried in celebrity-spotting maps, there are more local wanderers drawn by the promise of a nature getaway.

On a recent Sunday morning, 20 such nature lovers attended a bird tour in the cemetery, undaunted by the bitter cold that turned their noses red. Binoculars in hand, they listened carefully to the comments of Philippe Rance and Patrick Suiro, two amateur ornithologists who have made Père-Lachaise their new playground.

The group froze at every chirp of a thrush or chaffinch, one hand holding the binoculars, the other a tombstone for balance. The site’s most famous species is the rose-ringed parakeet, whose green feathers and high-pitched warbles are hard to miss. Legend has it that the progenitors of the parakeets, native to Africa and India, escaped from a container in a Paris airport in the 1970s, with flocks of the birds since spreading throughout France’s capital.

Suiro said he has counted more than 100 species of birds in the past two decades. He couldn’t help but rejoice that the cemetery’s once enormous cat population, fed by feline fans who left kibble in open vaults, has dwindled, mainly because of sterilization operations, making way for robins.

A passionate naturalist, Suiro has also documented dozens of orchids, which he likes to call by their Latin names. “Epipactis helleborine,” he said excitedly during the Sunday tour, pointing to a frail stem rising between two moss-covered gravestones.

Beyern, the cemetery guide and historian, said the greening of Père-Lachaise reflected a broader societal shift toward environmentalism.

In Paris, a capital with a low tree cover, the cemetery’s canopy helps mitigate the effects of increasingly scorching summers. Across France, “eco-friendly” cemeteries have sprung up, encouraging the use of biodegradable coffins and wooden grave markers.

The new parklike setting at Père-Lachaise has had unexpected consequences.

Cemetery employees had grown used to dealing with fans getting drunk near Morrison’s grave or covering Wilde’s tombstone in lipstick kisses. But now, said Gallot, the curator, they are busy chasing joggers and people laying down blankets for picnics.

“‘Your cemetery looks like Paris-Plages!’” he said some longtime visitors complained, referring to the artificial beaches set up every summer along the Seine river.

Still, Gallot said he likes the idea of a cemetery bustling with activity.

In a recently published book on the “secret life” of Père-Lachaise, he described the grave where he himself would like to rest. It would stand in a small garden, near a shrub where robins could nest. A bench would be installed for passersby. A planter would serve as a water trough for foxes and a pool for birds.

“In short,” he wrote, “I would like my grave to be a lively place.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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