Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Early Evening (and almost Night !) in.... Cimetière du Nord...

With the changing seasons, a beautiful site that I often return to is that of the « Père-Lachaise rémois », otherwise known today as the Cimetière du Nord de Reims. The oldest parts of this cemetery, which dates back to the late 18th century, still house many of the graves and individual chapels whose plots were set in place in the decades following its inauguration.
Built in 1787, just before the French Revolution, this garden à l'anglaise setting was conceived in response to the same dilemma that confronted most towns and cities; how to bury their dead in a dignified, safe manner. Communal graves set intra muros could no longer offer any kind of satisfactory solution and were to be banned definitively. Hence, some 17 years before the grand Parisian necropolis, the provincial Cimetière de la Porte Mars was opened, just outside the city walls, and later to be renamed Cimetière du Nord; the oldest cemetery of Reims.
Although many of the original monuments such as the Chapelle Sainte-Croix survived the ravages of the French Revolution years from 1789, like much of the city, the cemetery suffered considerable damage during the Great War of 1914-18. Indeed, the chapel itself was virtually destroyed and was under threat of demolition until classified as a Monument Historique in 1927.
Nevertheless, in the post-war years, both city and cemetery were rebuilt and it is difficult now to imagine the loss and devastation of that period. The earliest sections of the site - divided into cantons (as opposed to more familiar term - divisions) - make up a place of great beauty and tranquility, with the paths winding between trees and what could be called a 'respectable' amount of greenery.
Only when I visited Brompton cemetery in London last month, did I realise just how well its little French equivalent here in Reims stands up to a comparison with the vast and renowned necropoles of the 'Magnificent Seven'. The atmosphere is just as powerful yet peaceful, the monuments equally ornate, moving and somewhat mysterious in their age and gentle decay as their English counterparts and the wildlife likewise magical, in Spring, Summer or Winter. Last week, overwintering butterflies were dancing around the gravestones, flickering in the sunlight, birds cheerily chirping away, indifferent to any sombre mood the tombs may exude, and to the cats prowling around in the undergrowth, snaking their way between gravestones.
Each time I come here, new details seem to emerge from the old, catching my eye for the first time or retaining my gaze yet again. And so it is with the tomb below, which not only catches my attention on every visit, but also causes me to catch my breath. From an inscription that is gradually being lost to time, there is an expression of emotion has in no way diminished with the years. Indeed, such is the extent of the sadness that emanates from this grave that I can only stop to read it again and again. Whilst all graves hold infinite stories of loss - with love and life itself fully experienced and enjoyed, or denied, thwarted, cut short - rarely have I seen this expressed so clearly.
The pain of the parents of the first Joséphine, who suffered the loss of their beloved daughter at the age of 14 years, was to be relived and heightened by death of a second Joséphine in early infancy. Their sorrow seeps through the stonework still... reaching out to us.
To make this sadder still is the enigmatic blank first panel on the family tombstone, indicating that perhaps no relative of the famille Clément-Cochon was able to complete the inscription to show that parents and daughters had finally been reunited in this resting place as had been their own wish and expressed promise to their first-born.
On every visit, I try to shrug off this tale as a heavy shroud since I do not want to dwell on such sadness, but am inevitably drawn back, like a moth to a flame. So this time, I thought I would inscribe it in this virtual expanse and pay my respects as a stranger, over time and space, to a family of the long-distant past whose sentiments we can still sense in the present but pray will never experience ourselves.
Death is part of Life and vice versa, and it is therefore enheartening and wholly appropriate that all cemeteries are focal points for wildlife in all shapes and forms; even the lichen and moss that forms on the stonework underlines the movement of Life! Naturally the violets and primroses flowering on the grassy patches between plots add a jollity that you cannot escape, and reflect some of the ornate floral carvings of the gravestones themselves.
Whilst the 19th century symbolic staples are here; broken urns, upturned torches, hour-glasses, the odd weaping angel, Egyptian faces and a collection of owls, I particularly love the clasped hands. On my latest visit I noticed a hand detail that actually made me laugh, as two hands each clasp a wreath at the extremities of a sarcophagus yet both appear to be attached to one very long extended arm that runs along the entire length of the crest!
Well, for all that the last laugh was very definitely on me, for as I walked around the cemetery at the end of the afternoon, I failed to notice the time and so when I went to leave... the very tall, imposing iron gates were firmly shut and held in place by an equally impressive padlock! Having minimal battery on my phone, I quickly made a desperate call to my daughter with strict instructions to inform the fire brigade or police to get me out before nightfall! About an hour later, I was set free but have to admit it was a special moment to have the cemetery to myself... and yet again, my visit underlined the wise words used by Hugues Krafft as the motto for the Société des Amis du Vieux Reims;...... Urbium sacra senectus » : all that is ancient in a town is sacred.

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