Walking home yesterday as the day drew to a close, I saw a sight that actually made me gasp in shock and brought tears to my eyes. The old conciergerie
that has stood at the entrance of the Cimetière du Nord
in Reims since 1839 had been partially demolished as part of the metamorphosis of the City of the Consecration of Kings.
Although this lodge had been no spectacular piece of architecture in itself, it formed an integral part of the view of the approach to the cemetery. Indeed, it somehow offset the massive wrought-iron gate that now looks strangely vulnerable and not without reason, for this will no doubt be over-shadowed by some towering sample of soulless concrete 'modernity' in months to come. The three odd arched windows and quirky little steps leading up to its front door that were so familiar to me on my walk home are now quite literally rubble.
Today I actually saw some of this mutation taking place, with a huge digger sprawling over the ruins like some grotesque carrion-eating beast, jaws greedily gnawing and grinding up the remains of the city architecture, pulverizing another part of the collective past so that no trace is left, even in individual memory.
Is nothing sacred? The new housing scheme will flank the tranquil plots of this 'Père-Lachaise rémois'
, built in 1786 with the evocative, Romantic beauty of tombs and monuments set amongst a tranquil landscape-garden setting. What will happen in the future when such sites - this and others - are deemed socially irrelevant and culturally inappropriate in a modern-day society that has little time or inclination for peaceful reflection on a past with all its flaws and imperfections?
The cemetery is, of course, just behind the vast Monument aux Morts
built on Place de la République to commemorate those who lost so much in the Great War. Reims was largely decimated during the hostilities (1914-18), making this ville martyre
a symbol of French suffering and resilience. Le Cimetière du Nord
did not escape unscathed, as much of the grounds and masonry were likewise damaged during the war years yet it was restored again. How ironic that it should now witness new scenes of destruction just some hundred years later, at the very behest of the city authorities...
The war monument bears the inscription; 'For the new generations so that they may know and remember'
. How are they going to do that when, little by little, the slate has been wiped clean? The old bell hung by the cemetery entrance has been torn off and that in itself seems to be a sign of ill-omen...