Cemetery Tourism (or The Search for Jim Morrison)

Last week I was wandering through headstones at the Pere’ Lachaise cemetery on the east side of Paris and thinking to myself what an odd choice I was making. After all, I had just driven almost an hour from the Palace of Versailles and my first stop in Paris was a graveyard? Granted, I’ve been to Paris before and seen most of the sights covered by the tour buses, but I had been sent on a mission by a friend. My quest: To find the grave of Jim Morrison.

It might seem strange that an American icon like Jim Morrison is buried on the other side of the world. James Douglas Morrison passed away of heart failure in 1971  after leaving The Doors and moving to Paris to pursue poetry. His funeral was quick, awkward, controversial and had only six close friends in attendance; not really the sort of ending that one might expect for The Lizard King.  Hardly anyone came to Morrison’s burial, but since then, thousands of fans have visited his grave, brought him offerings, and even tried to dig him up. Eventually a fence was put around his modest headstone to keep the riff raff out. You can’t keep a true groupie out for long, so you’ll see his grave decorated with pictures, flowers and even miniature liquor bottles and jewelry. Jim would be proud. Most people probably don’t give a second thought to where famous people go when they  pass on to the Great Gig in the Sky, but the answer can sometimes be fascinating.

The Pere’ Lachaise cemetery is full of famous people. The famous Polish composer Chopin is interred there and still gets flowers 170 years after his death. Oscar Wilde left England after being imprisoned in his own country for being “Wilde” and ended up in this famous cemetery. A few copies of his books have been tossed over the Plexiglas wall that protects his memorial, plus scribbled graffiti from wannabe writers. Balzac is regarded as one of France’s most famous writers and receives visitors daily as well. There’s countless others, but the biggest question is this: how do you find who you’re looking for in a virtual city of gravestones and sepulchers? If you want to find Jim Morrison’s grave, Google it. Google maps will take you step by step to Jim’s place. You can even check in on Facebook. Want to see who’s buried at Pere’ Lachaise? There’s an app for that.

I suppose after I downloaded the cemetery app, I realized that my macabre tour wasn’t that strange of a travel choice. Obviously there’s other people interested in finding famous graves or just wandering around and seeing the sights. After all, this cemetery is like a city. Some of the tombs are huge and ornate, others look like the perfect place to film a vampire movie. The cemetery even has streets signs. It’s a photographer’s paradise, like looking at old churches perhaps, but each one just a few footsteps away from the other. Some have statues of the hosts resting on top, others are weathered and barely readable. Each one has it’s own story. That’s what interests me. Who are these people? How did they end up in one of the most famous cemeteries in the world?

Besides the photography allure of cemetery spelunking, one has to admit that finding headstones is a little like a scavenger hunt. It’s a challenge to many to find a particular memorial. I’ve often seen geocaching sites in cemeteries. Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt game where travelers stow away little caches with logbooks or trinkets for other travelers to find using their telephone GPS function. Once I searched for a little hidden canister in the Galveston cemetery. I looked for an hour, even asked a groundskeeper. The hints got me within 10 feet of the canister, but alas I was “gravely” disappointed when I couldn’t find it.

Last year I was in Deadwood, South Dakota and stumbled upon the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. I admit I knew they were supposed to be cool “cowboy people”, but until I saw the shrine that their fans had created on their final resting places I had never bothered to read their history. Once I started doing a little research about them, an amazing story came to light about their relationship, Bill’s murder and their influence on the remaining last decades of the Wild West. On a recent trip I found Kit Carson’s grave in New Mexico. His life with the native Americans and his influence in the area was fascinating. Benjamin Franklin is buried in Boston and still makes about $750 a year in pennies thrown by fans onto his grave. Over 200 years after his death his fans remember that “a penny saved is a penny earned”. I think a true Franklin-phyte should have thrown him a “Benjamin”, but $100 bills have a tendency to quickly disappear faster than other denominations.  Why do people visit these graves? Maybe it’s because these celebrities are more accessible than their living counterparts. Maybe it’s for the hunt.

I had no idea who Marie Laveau was before I visited her grave in New Orleans. Wow! What a story! I don’t think I would have ever looked into her history if I hadn’t visited their memorial. Seeing the appreciation heaped upon the gravestones by undying fans has to be the best compliment ever. You have to be curious how these stars have influenced their fans’ lives enough that the person would make the pilgrimage to visit them after their death. Visit Bob Marley’s grave in Jamaica if you want to see some dedicated fans. Jim has nothing on Bob.

There are plenty of cemeteries scattered around the world that have no one you’ve ever heard of buried there, but still make fascinating stops. Salem, Massachusetts has one of the creepiest  little cemeteries in the world and looks just like what you might expect from a famous witch town. Ireland and Scotland are full of Celtic cross gravestones on craggy moss covered ground in their ancient gardens of the dead. The Cemetery of Americans killed in Normandy is an awe-inspiring  and touching site. You’ve heard of JFK, but probably not the other 360,000 buried at Arlington. Next time you’re traveling, do a web search for famous people buried in the city you’re visiting. You might enjoy the adventure more than you imagined.

Next week I’m traveling through Los Angeles and will definitely be making a stop at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to pay my respects to Rudolph Valentino and Peter Lorre. Hot Shots, LA Story and Dexter have all shot scenes at this famous graveyard filled with stars. I’ll try to get there early. Everyone else is just dying to get in.

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