Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir were both buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, just south of their old stomping ground in St-Germain-des-Prés. When Sartre was buried there in 1980, an incredible 50,000 mourners came out to bid farewell to their favourite intellectual. Soon afterwards, Beauvoir, despite her many illustrious achievements as a writer, philosopher and pioneering feminist thinker, would rate her greatest accomplishment as her relationship with her beloved Jean-Paul. Beauvoir died in 1987, and was laid to rest beside her late partner.
Recently, along with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alex, I visited Paris to retrace the footsteps of this extraordinary couple. On an uncharacteristically warm and beautifully clear sunny day in October, we hired some bicycles and pedalled our way along the wide boulevards of Paris’s Latin Quarter in search of the cemetery where the objects of our pilgrimage were buried. Using our map of Paris to guide us, we eventually came across its entrance, nestled in Montparnasse on a quiet tree-lined residential street.
We secured our bikes, and proceeded into the grounds to be greeted by a little, slightly crumpled Frenchman sitting at the gate.
‘Je voudrais voir Sartre et Beauvoir’, I explained in my hesitant French.
He produced a well-worn laminated map and pointed out the location of Sartre and Beauvoir’s plots on it, over on the other side of the cemetery.
‘Merci’, I replied, at which point he suggested in thickly accented English:
‘Would you like to take the map with you – you can return it when you come back.’
I took up his kind offer, and as we set off into the cemetery grounds, I noticed as I read the guide he had given us that there were many other esteemed people buried here, including the French writer Marguerite Duras and the American critic Susan Sontag. There were a few other visitors strolling through the grounds, some like us looking for famous people, others paying their respects to deceased relatives and ancestors.
‘This is actually a really nice cemetery’, my daughter observed with an air of pleasant surprise (she had earlier been quite sceptical of my suggestion that visiting such a place would be a good way to spend the morning). I had to agree with her observation. Sunlight that filtered its way through branches and leaves of old plane trees that graced the cemetery grounds warmed our skin as we wormed our way through scattered headstones, some old and neglected, others well-tended with fresh flowers. Birds twittered serenely in the foliage above us as we traversed through this expectant landscape of cement tombs and inscribed stone.
After some time following the directions we had been given, my daughter called out that she had found it. Sure enough, there before us lay a faded sandstone grave bearing the names and years on this earth of our two philosophers. Beauvoir’s headstone was covered with lipstick kisses, lovingly placed there by a previous visitor. Both graves were littered with notes and objects from others from all around the world who had come here before us to pay their respects. I felt compelled, too, to write a note of thanks for the inspiration their works and lives had given me. I folded the handwritten message and left it there amongst the others. My daughter took a few photographs of me standing beside my muses.
In the twenty minutes or so that we lingered at the grave, a few other people came along to pay their respects in the warm silent Paris sunshine. A family speaking a language I didn’t understand arrived, chattered loudly, and pointed at the graves for a while before dispersing, guide book in hand. A young female student came and stood there quietly for a long period in deep reflection. An older lady and then a younger man, both on their own, turned up and stood there in silence. None of them wanted to talk. Each of these solitary pilgrims seemed to want to spend time alone with the thinkers, just as they had when they had read their books. After they all left I too spent some time alone with the writers who had filled my imagination years ago with stories of a bohemian and bustling Paris before, during and after the war.
My daughter and I left the graveside and proceeded to make our way back to the cemetery entrance, whereupon we came across a funeral service, where forty or fifty well-dressed mourners smoked cigarettes, talked and embraced quietly around the grave of their beloved. I found myself imagining the day when Sartre was buried here, when tens of thousands of mourners filled the whole cemetery to capacity. On that day Paris’s citizens had scrambled across headstones and climbed trees in chaotic scenes, trying to get a glimpse of their beloved hero before his casket was lowered into its grave. According to newspaper reports of the service, there was mayhem in the now-quiet cemetery that day as many in the crowd surged to see their philosophical idol before he was laid to rest. And in front of them all, given some space as a sign of respect, had been Simone de Beauvoir dressed in black, kneeling at the graveside and convulsed in grief.
I found myself wondering, as I returned the map to the man at the cemetery gates and cycled off with my daughter into the gloriously sunny day, whether a time would ever come again when thousands would turn up to say good-bye to a man or woman of ideas, or whether those days had passed into history forever.