I’m not in the habit of hanging around graveyards, but on my recent trip to Paris I made an exception. I stopped by Père Lachaise, the city’s biggest, and most famous, cemetery. It’s nearly 109 acres, receives over 1.5 million visitors each year and houses, in the final sense, Chopin, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison of The Doors, among others.
It’s an odd thing we humans do, to continually celebrate certain people, to keep their fame alive, even when they have passed. The famous graves drip with flowers, graffiti, and the tokens of love people leave for those who have inspired them. You can’t escape the uneasy feeling of one-upmanship. It’s a shrine-off. A sensitive ghost might worry about their stature in the hierarchy of visitor numbers. For among the startling architecture, the family tombs, the memorials to those who lost their lives in World War Two, there’s popularity contest going on. X Factor for the dead. Three yeses. Congratulations, you’re immortal! Or at least your memory is.
Not that I can talk, I came to make my own pilgrimage. I came to visit my favourite writer.
I remember when I discovered his work. I was trying to pick a text for GCSE English Literature, scratching around in the library. My brother, three years younger – he was always smarter – said he’d watched a black and white film that morning. He thought I’d like it, knew it was based on a play, suggested I check it out. That was The Importance of Being Earnest, by the inimitable Oscar Wilde.
I love Oscar’s wit. But then, everyone does. It’s reproduced on tea towels, mugs, posters, spread wide, but still thick with style and substance. I love Oscar’s use of language. His ideas. His theories. His observations of human behaviour, his satirical takedowns of society’s pomp and prejudice. I love the way he lived his life: generous, fearless, foolish. When I graduated from sixth form, my English teacher gave me an inscribed collection of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. I was not quiet about my passion. Oscar and I hung out again at university; he cropped up in my dissertation. Oscar and his exploration of decadence, his dedication to aestheticism influenced my career decisions, helped me find my way into the fashion industry. L’art pour l’art. The cult of beauty.
So I came to say thank you. The guidebooks told me Oscar’s grave would be festooned with lipstick kisses, smothered with flowers. I rounded one of the stone corners of Père Lachaise. The sun came out. Bright blue sky provided the backdrop… for the horror. Oscar’s tomb was scrubbed clean. The flying nude angel Jacob Epstein sculpture, which denotes his resting place, gleamed. Around it was a tall glass barrier. No kissing. No touching. Around that was a crash barrier; between it and the tomb were two metres of churned mud. Dead flowers trodden into it. Someone had traversed the lot and managed to get a small candle inside the glass barrier, at the foot of the tomb. I cried.
I’m not in the habit of visiting graveyards. I’m also not in the habit of Googling or reading about them. A quick Internet search revealed a smattering of newspaper articles about how in 2011 the descendants of Wilde, the French authorities and the Irish government jet washed away the lipstick kisses people gave their idol. They decided to “protect” the grave by encasing it. Badly, I would say. The top of the glass bisects the statue. It jars. I didn’t know. I came too late.
Others have obviously written about this, but it is fresh to me. I have felt the cold glass against my cheek. I have kissed my fingers and passed my hand up and underneath to touch Oscar. I have shed a tear for a man who was contained in his life, most cruelly at the end in Reading Gaol for the crime of homosexuality, and who is contained once more. Like a museum curiosity. Like an animal in a zoo cage. Far from preserving something, they’ve put Oscar Wilde in a box.