TRAVEL

After The End:
JIm Morrison's 30-year Tenure in a French Cemetery
By Grant Rosenberg


It is rather indistinct these days—a common, simple headstone and plot, rather boring in the ornate company of the other burial plots. The graffitied, sculptured head is gone and with it, the Cult of Jim. Yes, there are bouquets of fresh flowers all the time. And, to be sure, there must be days when many loiter for hours, singing songs quietly and lighting candles, despite the continuous presence of security guards nearby. But the level of devotion has dropped off considerably in recent years.

James Douglas Morrison has been dead longer than he lived, and though he is firmly entrenched in the pantheon shared by Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and more recent inductees such as Kurt Cobain, it seems that the seekers and groupies have better things to do. They’ve become tourists, if they come at all.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, with its cobblestone paths, sepulchers and above-ground graves, is a spooky combination of fascination and dread, of celebrity and the unknown. Opening its gates on May 21, 1804, Père-Lachaise has become probably the most visited cemetery in Paris, and possibly beyond. It hosts 100,000 tombs over 44 hectares of land. Along with Jim are the remains of such international notables as Oscar Wilde, Modigliani, Maria Callas, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf and Frederic Chopin, in addition to a variety of French actors, artists, politicians, soldiers, inventors, humanitarians and Resistance fighters.

Jim’s grave is not exactly in plain view. In fact, if you don’t know where to look for it, you probably won’t find it. The paths that lead to it run at odd angles, and neither one exactly offers a clear view of it. On the stone itself, underneath the words James Douglas Morrison 1943-1971, is the following, in same type and size:

KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY

This Greek inscription means either "against the devil himself" or "against the devil within," depending on the context. This ambiguity is curious; the latter could imply an internal struggle with immorality (very interesting, as it was inscribed by Jim's father, with whom he was estranged), while the former has more of an overwrought air of heroic confrontation. This present headstone has been in place since 1991, courtesy of Jim’s father. The grave is by far the most visited by the most people in the cemetery, and a security officer or two is always stationed within view. I asked one of them why there must always be a guard present. Very succinctly, I was told, "Drugs. Alcohol. Graffiti. Other bad things."

There is much truth to this. Graffiti still covers the neighboring graves—all either directly or indirectly in reference to Jim—the perpetrators perhaps not aware of the disrespect they are showing the other deceased by desecrating their resting places, some of whom may still have relatives visiting. Having your eternal resting-place in close proximity to Jim Morrison does not seem enviable, at least from the perspective of your living loved ones. To be fair, it’s doubtful that those who write in chalk and marker on neighboring graves would do such things at other cemeteries. There is a certain gothic unreality to Père-Lachaise, which certainly must have fueled the Jim Mystique for so many years after his death, making his grave a pilgrimage destination.

Julia Kolberger, a 23-year-old Polish student studying in Paris, recalls the way it was a decade ago. At only 13 years of age, she spent a month in Paris, just as the popular culture of the West was opening up to her for the first time. For a child growing up behind the Iron Curtain, it was a lot to take in. The music of The Doors was a big part of it all.

"I was there in May 1991, before the movie was released in Europe. I wore the same pair of jeans for three weeks straight, which had a drawing I had made of Jim’s face along with many flowers. I went to the cemetery at 11am everyday until 6pm when it closed. There were a handful of other people who were there all day as well."

Of these people, Kolberger spent much time with three others in particular, including a punk who carried around a pet rat that he would put in his mouth for kicks. "Everyone sat on the neighboring graves. Nobody moved us away. We played loud stereos, not just The Doors…all kinds of music from the 1970s."

It was in this environment that a routine apparently arose. A man in his late 30s or early 40s, a Native South American, according to Kolberger, was the unofficial "Spiritmaster" of the gravesite. He claimed to have been a regular visitor for 15 years, when not in jail for drugs. He was the de facto guardian of the famous Morrison sculptured bust that had been a part of the grave for years. "Since it had been stolen before," explains Kolberger, "he took it home and would bring it out only for special ceremonies such as Jim’s birthday or deathday."

Later, the sculpture disappeared completely. Kolberger learned that the man went to jail again so perhaps it was in his possession at the time and confiscated—Kolberger doesn’t know. Nowadays, when she goes to the grave on occasion, it is to show it to visiting friends, in spite of the location not being what it used to be. In other words, seeing the grave has become a bit of a nostalgia trip for the post-Jim era, in addition to being his grave. As in, "This is where the Jim seances happened, when we all got crazy and people danced naked, back in the day."

*

He was buried on July 8, 1971, at the age of 27—my age, though this has less effect on me than I would have imagined a few years ago. And now, on an overcast afternoon thirty years and two months later, I stand near Jim’s grave for about an hour. During this time, there are twenty-something English speaking hippies as well as Germans, Spanish, Poles and others of all ages. The numbers of people ebb and flow; I might be standing alone for a good ten minutes, then a crowd of twenty or so would assemble for a half hour.

There are many interesting graves at Père-Lachaise, works of art to rival museum set pieces. Chopin’s is quite beautiful—white, clean and pious. Others are creepy, thanks to their windowed doorways where the remains are entombed, and the doors are often open or the glass broken. Litter abounds, candy wrappers and beer cans, the modern consumer world marking its territory.

The peculiarities don’t end. One grave from thirteen years ago is about ten feet in length, designed as a floor, jet white, with steps leading up to several four-foot-tall pillars built in a faux-tumble. At the front, protruding horizontally from the pseudo-floor’s edge, is a copper sculpture of a young man looking like a Beethoven or Einstein with wild, wiry hair. The only words on the entire gravestone translate as, "He loved Stendahl, Pavarotti, Gamine and Pink Floyd, but he was 29 years old…" Then his name, Velario, and the year 1988. As I walk toward the exit, I see a guy walking up with a guitar in the general direction of Jim.

There are conspiracy theorists who believe Jim’s remains were secretly brought back to the United States in recent years. And there is merit for this idea; the lease on the gravesite was for thirty years, which expired two months ago. Yet, apparently it is now an official French cultural landmark, and it seems there is little doubt that this would be the case. Despite the added security and the attendant headaches that come with such an attraction, it’s obvious that Père-Lachaise and Paris-at-large benefit from the resting-place of this celebrated American guest. Does it really matter if it hosts his bones or not? Grave or shrine, it is what it is.

The question that remains is why? What attracted, and still attracts, people to spend entire days here in a manner that is not common at other dead rock stars’ graves? Perhaps the answer is the same as why The Grateful Dead achieved a following that could have very well been for another band in its stead. A combination of time and place and a splash of the ineffable. Jim Morrison was more than a pop star. For many, he was a pop philosopher. Maybe a part of the draw is the stake of Americana in Paris, something about the binding of two cultures that seem very far from one another—and an American oasis of sorts, in this bizarre, international time warp of a cemetery. Our own player in a cultural all-star game.

Having so many people buried in one place, the famous, infamous and immortal next to others with local or simply lesser fame, is a strange thing. The variations on the graves, the haunting crypts from 1830 next to burials from earlier this year, it’s a lot to take in. Big or small, simple or ornate, the appearance and expense of one’s grave has always been an issue everywhere—the capitalist thorn in Death’s side.

Death, that great equalizer. Supposedly.