Walking through Pére Lachaise yesterday, a friend and I were musing about what it would be like to be so renowned that people still flocked to your grave long after you were dead. We were on our way over the cobbled streets of the famous cemetery heading toward Oscar Wilde’s grave. When we got there, all I recognized from the many times I’ve seen it in films and pictures was the winged statue and his missing, erm… parts. The stone was covered in glass and gone were the messages and kisses that I had expected. Tuesday morning I was sent this article by another friend back in the United States. Apparently, I had just missed out on seeing the historical site in the way I had intended to view it. On our way out of the cemetery we made a last stop at Jim Morrison’s grave, which now has a gate around it so viewers can no longer get close — and the messages I had expected to see there were gone as well. An Italian who was standing close by tossed a celebratory splash of whiskey onto the grave, and was quickly reprimanded by an elderly French man (also a visitor) who immediately called the police about the matter.
I am not an irreverent person. In fact, I am as far away from that description as possible (possibly to a fault). But I have to wonder, when do public figures stop belonging to themselves and start belonging to the public? Without the wacky, sometimes misguided, often irreverent, but nonetheless incredibly devoted people who adore those who have created and left something behind to be admired, those figures (now gone) would eventually fade into the blue, just like the rest of us. It is every generation of new fans, who discover an artist for the first time and cultivate a personal relationship through interacting with the art that they left behind, that keep them relevant. And though I couldn’t bring myself to ask the elderly, angry gentleman if he was offended because he thought Morrison deserved a certain respect for being dead or whether he just thought the Italian shouldn’t add any whiskey to Morrison’s heroin-filled bones, I do ask myself whether we are missing the point when we take the personality out of our tributes.
In the case of Oscar Wilde, I have to disagree with Rupert Everett, who is playing Wilde in an upcoming film and said, at the ceremony of the revealing the new grave guard, that he thought Wilde would have liked his grave to be clean, while Wilde’s grandson mentioned that he wished people could have kissed the grave without lipstick so the family wouldn’t have felt the need to surround it with the shield. While I understand the family’s feeling that the grave belongs to them, it is those of us who read his work that continue his legacy. And I can’t help but believe Wilde wouldn’t have been offended by the lipstick (or much else for that matter).