February 3, 2023

Money News PH

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Wild and wild: Nature plays the leading role at the celebrity cemetery

PARIS — Dried leaves rustled under Benoît Gallot’s footsteps as he made his way through the rugged terrain. He stopped at laurel and elder bushes and tore their foliage aside to reveal a crumbling stone colonnade. A parakeet perched in a nearby tree screeched.

It looked like a scene deep in one of France’s lush forests – but this was within one of the world’s most visited burial sites, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, nestled between busy avenues in east Paris.

The cemetery has long been known as the final resting place of famous artists including Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf. But in recent years it has also become a sanctuary for the city’s flora and fauna. Foxes and tawny owls are among the many animals that make their home here.

“Nature is reclaiming her rights,” said Mr. Gallot, the cemetery’s curator responsible for overseeing site maintenance and allocating burial sites, as he continued his trek among headstones engulfed in vines and weeds.

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

By promoting wildlife in a site dedicated to death, these efforts have also caused a small revolution in the customs of French cemeteries, where traces of non-human life have long been viewed as disrespectful to the deceased.

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

Opened in 1804, the 110-acre cemetery — named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Rev. François de La Chaise d’Aix — is perched on a hilltop overlooking central Paris. His earliest tombstones rubbed shoulders against trees and plants in a park-like setting.

But as the place’s reputation grew, its lush greenery dwindled. First came the arrival of the suspected remains of playwright Molière and poet Jean de La Fontaine, who were relocated in 1817, prompting Parisians to claim their own final resting places near the famous residents. Carved vaults and chapels sprouted over the graveyard’s uneven terrain and nibbled at wildlife.

Today, around 1.3 million people are buried there, including Proust, Chopin and Sarah Bernhardt, which is about half the living population of Paris.

In the second half of the last century, nature withdrew further due to intensive weed control. Unlike northern and central Europe — like Britain and Austria, where tombstones are scattered across verdant landscapes — France and other Latin American countries have preferred more austere, stony burial grounds, according to Bertrand Beyern, cemetery guide and historian.

Out of respect for the dead, no sign of life was allowed in except for mourners.

“Even the smallest dandelion had to be cleaned up,” said Jean-Claude Lévêque, a gardener at the cemetery since 1983. He recalled how he and others dumped gallons of pesticide on grave sites several times a year. “It was the ‘golf green’ mentality.”

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

But seeing the flowers bloom again and the birds returning to the nest convinced him.

A total ban on herbicides was in place by 2015, and Xavier Japiot, a naturalist working for the Paris city council, said a “rich ecosystem” had developed as a result.

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

Some visitors found the changes not only pleasant, but also reassuring.

“This natural diversity draws your attention away from death,” said Philippe Lataste, a 73-year-old retiree, who wandered the cobbled streets of Père-Lachaise. “It’s less scary.”

The most spectacular wildlife outbreak came at a time of extraordinary sadness: the coronavirus crisis. In April 2020, in a ghostly Paris on lockdown, Mr Gallot came across a pair of foxes and their four cubs in the cemetery, a rare sighting in the city limits.

“To see those boys in that moment felt really good,” Mr Gallot said, recalling a period marked by “non-stop funerals”.

The greening of the site has brought a new crowd of visitors, whose total number exceeds three million in a typical year. Now, alongside the streams of tourists from all over the world searching for the cemetery’s most famous tombs, burying their noses in celebrity maps, there are more local hikers drawn by the promise of a nature getaway.

On a Sunday morning, 20 such nature lovers took part in a bird tour in the cemetery, undaunted by the bitter cold which 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 binoculars, the other a tombstone for balance. The place’s most famous species are the Rose-ringed Parakeets, whose green feathers and high-pitched warble are hard to miss. Legend has it that the ancestors of the parakeet, native to Africa and India, escaped from a container at a Paris airport in the 1970s, and flocks of the birds have since spread throughout the French capital.

Mr Suiro said he had counted over 100 bird species over the past two decades. He couldn’t help but delight in the fact that the cemetery’s once enormous cat population, fed by cat fans who left kibble in open vaults, has dwindled, largely due to sterilization operations that have given way to robins.

A passionate naturalist, Mr. Suiro has also documented dozens of orchids, which he likes to call by their Latin names. “Epipactis Helleborine,” he said excitedly during Sunday’s walkabout, pointing to a flimsy trunk sticking out between two moss-covered tombstones.

Mr. Beyern, the cemetery guide and historian, said the greening of the Père-Lachaise reflects a broader societal shift toward environmental conservation.

In Paris, a sparsely treed capital, the cemetery’s canopy helps mitigate the effects of increasingly scorching summers. “Eco-friendly” cemeteries have sprung up across France, promoting the use of biodegradable wooden coffins and tombstones.

The new park-like setting at Père-Lachaise had unexpected consequences.

Cemetery workers had become accustomed to dealing with fans getting drunk near Morrison’s grave or covering Wilde’s gravestone with lipstick kisses. But now, said Mr. Gallot, the curator, they’re busy chasing joggers and people spreading blankets for picnics.

“‘Your cemetery looks like Paris-Plages!'” he said, complaining some longtime visitors, referring to the artificial beaches that are created along the Seine every summer.

Nonetheless, Mr Gallot said he liked the idea of ​​a bustling graveyard.

In a recent book about the “secret life” of Père-Lachaise, he described the tomb in which he himself would like to rest. It would be in a small garden, near a bush where robins might nest. A bench would be set up for passers-by. A planter would serve as a water trough for foxes and a basin for birds.

“In short,” he wrote, “I want my grave to be a living place.”