Ein a cold, sunny November day in Paris. Life is back, so are the tourists, the city is as noisy as ever. Stille can be found ten metro stops from the center, here in the east, in the 20th arrondissement, at the Père Lachaise cemetery, the largest in the metropolis. Three and a half million visitors come here every year – about as many as Cologne has tourists in twelve months – in search of the graves of Piaf and Proust, Molière and Morrison and many other celebrities among the 69,000 resting places.
One of the few living people who are at home here, so to speak, is Olivier Loudin. The other visitors to the cemetery may be after the prominent dead, but Monsieur Loudin unearths the life stories of nameless people. For 14 years, the 58-year-old has been walking along the paths, which are called avenues here, every few days; unlike the others, he takes the unpaved streets that lead into the interior of the burial ground, squeezes into the barely half a meter wide passages between crypts as high as houses. Stops abruptly because he noticed a detail. Unabashedly, he sticks his head into one of the houses of the dead or looks in through the glass hatch, turns to his guests, his audience, and tells an anecdote.
Famous but forgotten women
Of course, that seems idiosyncratic, it makes you think of passionate collectors who search towns, cities, countries for matchboxes or battle axes. Monsieur Loudin collects biographies. He introduces himself as an actor, singer, puppeteer. In 2008 he accepted a role, no, took it over, from a man who had explored the cemetery, admittedly for a valid and sad reason: his wife, although 20 years his junior, had died before him. “He wanted to be close to her and searched the neighboring graves for certain characters that he knew his wife would like to know more about.” So he groped his way back into life; the price was cemetery excursions, for 30 years.
Monsieur Loudin could have written a book about it. But even an actor does not escape the role that life forces upon him. So, most recently in October, he offers guided tours to the graves of “peripheral personalities”. To “famous but forgotten by history women”. As well as to authors and performers “whom we still remember” (“The French Chanson from the Directory to 1940”). He tells of the writer Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889), who was a friend of Baudelaire and Wagner, or of Lucien Delormel (1847-1899), who wrote up to 6000 chansons. People from the second row, or the last.
“I rarely have a plan”
He scrapes moss from a stone with a file; he is standing in front of a stately mausoleum, jotting something down on his pad. Here, for example, you can travel back 218 years to June 18, 1804, when Madame Reine Févez, mother of eight children and wife of Valentin Robert, died. The stone still stands today, placed on the Avenue Circulaire, and is the oldest proven on the Père Lachaise. In 1973, however, the bones were transferred to the ossuary. “One stands”, says Loudin, “in front of an empty grave. And the tombstone was originally somewhere else.”
The visitor falls silent. This story of the death of the mother of eight does not make you happy. Or do you just have wrong expectations? Loudin looks sly. How would it be with? He recently discovered a tombstone with two initials. “MF”, nothing else. “The 19th-century tomb is tasteful and expensive. But why only two letters? Do you have something to hide?” Loudin researched the grave number and so far found that only one person rests here: Marie Foyo, actress, died at the age of 35 and was buried semi-anonymously. At 21, she is said to have had an affair with a married man. A scandal at that time! Loudin sounds a bit like a tabloid journalist after all. “I’ll know more about Marie in a few months.”