Benoît Gallot, curator of Paris’s Père-Lachaise cemetery, would like to lay a particular urban myth to rest: no, he is not using the testicles from the sphinx on Oscar Wilde’s tomb as a paperweight.
The stone genitals, allegedly removed from the mythical creature by two puritanical English women shocked by their size and prominence, were long reported to have been saved and put to office use by successive cemetery staff. According to Gallot, the story is utter balls.
“Numerous articles about Père-Lachaise explain that the sphinx’s attributes were recovered by one of the cemetery workers and have been used as a paperweight by successive curators. When I took up the job, of course I searched by office for the object of this castration, went through all the cupboards … I found nothing; no trace of this ‘relic’.”
The anecdote is one of many Gallot recounts in his enchanting book La Vie Secrète d’un Cimetière (The Secret Life of a Cemetery) in which he mixes personal anecdotes with an account of how the living and dead coexist in what has become one of the French capital’s most popular tourist attractions.
Gallot, 41, has lived with his wife and four children in the republican equivalent of a grace-and-favour home inside the cemetery since being appointed curator in 2018. It is a post he feels almost predestined for, having grown up with parents who still run the memorial stonemaker’s business originally founded by his great-grandfather.
His daily routine involves not only routine administration but balancing the often conflicting demands of the dying, dead and grieving with those beating a not-always respectful path to the final resting place of one of its more celebrated residents: Chopin, Balzac, Wilde, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison …
With more than three million visitors a year mingling with those attending burials or paying their respects, it can lead to tears and tantrums.
“It’s a delicate balance, but it’s important to remind people that Père-Lachaise is first and foremost a cemetery not an amusement park,” he says. “Our priority above all is the people of Paris, but we try to make it a good experience for the tourists too.”
This summer, cemetery staff handed out free plans to visitors to help them navigate the labyrinthine necropolis. Gallot says a mobile phone application is being developed as we speak.
Père-Lachaise was opened in 1804 on land acquired from Louis XIV’s spiritual confessor after whom it was later named. It only became popular among Parisiens as a burial site after Napoleon had the body of Louise de Lorraine, Henri III’s wife, moved there as well as those of tragic lovers Héloise and Abelard. The interring of remains believed at the time – and since disputed – to be those of playwright Molière and poet Jean de la Fontaine enhanced the cemetery’s reputation.
Popular culture – along with the detritus of drink and drugs – arrived when The Doors founder Jim Morrison was buried in Père Lachaise in 1971, in a grave now sealed off from zealous fans.
The grand mausoleums built before 1900 are listed so cannot be touched and the majority of plots were sold in perpetuity, meaning places are rare. About 100 plots whose concessions have expired and have not been renewed by families become free each year. However, Gallot insists says places cannot be reserved and being buried in Père-Lachaise is today more a question of luck than money.
“I want to smash the idea that Père Lachaise is just for the stars or wealthy; it’s also for Monsieur and Madame Ordinary,” Gallot says.
“We have several calls every day and it’s true there is more demand than places but it is entirely a question of luck as to whether a plot has just become available when someone calls.”
His job often calls for tissues and a shoulder for the grieving to cry on; but what the cemetery curator laments most of all is what he sees as a lack of imagination in people’s choices of how they want to be remembered. This has created cemeteries full of grey headstones, he says.
“Even those with the means to pay for something different want sombre tombs these days. There is very little that is original. Everything has become standardised. We see the same grey marble slabs with just a name engraved or a trite epitaph, which is a shame verging on a crisis because it has meant cemeteries becoming sad places nobody wants to visit.”
In his book he adds: “Vanity has been consigned to the cupboard and sobriety is now the fashion. One could interpret this postmortem humility as a sign of a welcome democratisation, the establishment of a certain equality between the dead: no matter what we were, no matter what we did, we will all end up in more or less similar graves. As the curator of a cemetery known for its exceptional monuments, I consider this ‘funerary timidity’ to be rather regrettable.
“Père-Lachaise would not be this remarkable place if megalomania had not one day pushed the most fortunate to have tombs built in the image of their bloated pride.”
Gallot says he was approached by several publishers to write his book after the success of his Instagram account featuring photographs of the flora and fauna that have made their home among the 70,000 tombs and mausoleums and in the horse chestnuts that line the paths of the 43-hectare (106-acre) cemetery. Since the use of pesticides was banned in the graveyard a decade ago, the wildlife has thrived bringing foxes, feral cats and weasels as well as parakeets, owls, woodpeckers and crows.
Back to Oscar Wilde, whose tomb – a huge winged sphinx carved from a 20-tonne block of Derbyshire stone by modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein – is one of Gallot’s favourites.
At its unveiling in August 1914, a bronze plaque was strategically placed to cover the testicles whose size was considered unusual, if not immodest, to the fury of Epstein who refused to attend the ceremony.
The story of the sphinx’s privates, removed in an act of vandalism in 1961, however, is one that refuses to die. Gallot insists he has no idea where they might be.
“Today, the question is regularly asked by journalists or those interested in Père-Lachaise, and each time I reply, no, I don’t have those precious stone testicles on my desk.”
• La Vie Sécrète d’un Cimetière by Benoît Gallot is published by Les Arènes.