visiting and interpreting the cemetery-museum

Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara, poet.

Cemeteries classify, preserve and display things. Many cemeteries also have a strict collections policy: not just anyone is allowed in. Such cemeteries thus have a lot in common with museums. The Montparnasse cemetery in Paris contains many famous dead Parisians. Like a museum, it both collects important things, and it makes things important by virtue of collecting them. Important people are buried in Montparnasse, and if someone is buried in Montparnasse, then they must be important. Unlike in a museum, however, the collection is never directly on display. Rather, the collection is concealed behind and below gravestones, sturdy devices often heavily inscribed with text, like particularly prominent and durable museum labels.

Emile Durkheim, sociologist.

Emile Durkheim, sociologist.

A museum label describes and interprets an object. In cemeteries, mementos, relics and messages are left on the graves of the famous by visitors and admirers. These are like additional, second-order museum labels, sometimes adding new meaning or suggesting new readings or interpretations of the object, sometimes contradicting or questioning the existing labels. On the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) grave, amongst a pile of stones, has been placed a folded copy of last Friday’s L’Humanité, the communist newspaper. This label interprets Durkheim and his legacy, just a museum label does. Of course, this reminds us that the very fact of calling Durkheim ‘the sociologist’ is an interpretive and arguable gesture: he may have preferred to be called something different, and we may wish to call him something different. On another grave, that of the libertine chanteur Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), a packet of Gauloises cigarettes has been left. Fumer nuit gravement à votre santé, the packet tells us. This seems one of the most accurate and succinct labels for an object I have ever seen, but then I would think that, having given up smoking. Both Gainsbourg and the visitor who left the packet might have thought differently about the relationship between smoking and health, and I imagine that the visitor intended the object-label to be a celebration, rather than the warning that I read.

Serge Gainsbourg, chanteur

Serge Gainsbourg, chanteur

A museum chooses carefully what objects to collect. Often it turns down offers of objects from institutions and individuals because of issues of storage space, duplication and relevance. Whilst who gets buried is carefully controlled, the cemetery has no such ability to control what is left on graves, and once placed on a grave, objects cannot be touched or removed, it seems, without transgressing some grave social code which says that these ordinary objects have become sacred. For instance, on the grave of the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (1896 – 1963) is an upturned flowerpot. Divorced from its function of holding flowers, the cheap plastic pot takes on new aesthetic and absurdist qualities. Additionally, by being inverted, it contains not flowers, but Tzara’s body. Unlike the cigarette packet left on Gainsbourg’s grave, it matters very much how the offering is spatially oriented. Removing it, or even turning it the right way up, returns it from a poignant gesture to just another plastic flowerpot. On the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare’s (1854 -1912) grave is a simple piece of lined paper, torn from an exercise book. It may have held a personal message, or perhaps a favourite equation. Now it is blank, the rain having washed away any ink that might have once been there. As the gardeners pick out the weeds and preserve the graves, should such scraps of paper, SIM cards, newspapers, metro tickets and flower pots be thrown away? Certainly they have no value once removed from the grave. Perhaps part of their poignancy is in their lack of permanence. Wind and rain soon destroy them. The labels and left objects may become sacred, but they need not be permanent. The graves remain, more or less, but the labels change: the cemetery is a bit like an anarchic museum where anyone can label and interpret the objects, and these labels change frequently, like, and sometimes with the weather.

Henri Poincaré, mathematician

Henri Poincaré, mathematician

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2 Responses to visiting and interpreting the cemetery-museum

  1. Hi Nicky – Ben Breen here (PhD student in history at UT Austin, @resobscura on twitter, and editor of The Appendix). I couldn’t find your email address on Twitter or your blog, hence I write here. Would you have any interest in developing this post into a longer article about mementos, graves and historical memory for the Appendix? You can find submission instructions and our editorial email address here: http://theappendix.net/submission-guidelines

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