In her book Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, author and critic Vanessa Schwartz delineates the historical and political undercurrents that carried forth the transformation of the cemetery into an emergent contemporary social space. In 1864, the Paris Morgue was constructed and opened to the public. Its central location in the city—both geographically and in terms of daily life, movement, and commerce—on Île de la Cité implicitly affirmed this space as one that represented a composite part of the very fiber of Parisian politics and community. Schwartz writes, “[…] the morgue transformed the banality everyday life by spectacularizing it.” And what function does this serve—this movement away from mourning into celebration, the illusory pairing of the two? What can be said of the relations between these processes in the emergence of a community practice that revolves, quite literally in terms of both ideology and embodied action, around death?

Death, and its controlled visibility, has always played a role in the governance of a sociopolitical body; it is a tool carefully employed so as to present the government’s sovereignty—over the body, its body, and the bodies of the citizens therein. In visiting Père Lachaise cemetery, located just around the corner from our student apartments and spread over an expansive 110 acres of land, one finds themselves to be situated squarely within the visualities and symbolic traces of this practice. Even as tourists visiting a popular tourist locale—and thusly taking part in an enacted ideology that serves the essential purpose of alienating said individuals from the actuality of the experience, that is, being surrounding by hundreds of dead bodies, memorials to the dead, enclosed in a space literally rife with the vestigial traces of historicized mourning practice(s)—the active visitor to this space cannot help but feel a tepid solemnity. This dissociated wonder, I would say, is perhaps the only remnant, truly, of our contemporary epoch’s relationship to the spectacle of death; we fear its absolution, have convinced ourselves through science and hygiene, statistics and self-care, that we might control its inevitable descent unto us, and yet we cannot, as “global”, media-saturated citizens, seem to ever look away from its traces, its horrors, its sheer terror.

So, how is the spectacle of death controlled at Père Lachaise? An ideal example is provided by the enclosures that have been erected around some the most visited tombs in the cemetery. These enclosures—around Jim Morrison’s grave, Oscar Wilde’s, that of famed tragic lovers, Heloise and Abelard—serve to control not only the gazes of the visitors that now comes to look upon these graves, but to control the bodies and ritual practices of this audience. In a culture fascinated with death, whose members seek ever to travel, to see and to visit, these actions have become the new social practice and social space, and they must accordingly be managed, under some emergent and ever-watchful eye. Someone mentioned during class that the tall glass walls surrounding Oscar Wilde’s tomb were put up as a reaction to an influx of male visitors who would leave lipstick marks on the stone. Putting the politics of this aside—indeed, though Jim Morrison’s grave and the surrounding tombs are covered in graffiti tags and poetic homages to the late performer, his tomb is surrounded by a simple metal police barricade. One is permanent, reflective, transparent—Wilde’s death (i.e., its symbolic object, the tomb) becomes like an animal at the zoo—while Morrison’s is more or less aesthetically preserved, save some spatial reformatting. Both examples illustrate the inextricable fusion of death from society, of bodies—both living and dead—from governance, but more essentially, mark the shifting schematics of memory/mourning practices and social interactions that play a central role in contemporary conceptions and sensations of desire, truth, and the image of death.

by Connie WalshImage