Benoît Gallot: “Let’s not wait until we’re dead to visit cemeteries!”

Benoît Gallot: “Let’s not wait until we’re dead to visit cemeteries!”

You work and live with your family at the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Living in the middle of 70,000 graves and 1.3 million dead people is not trivial…

Living here is a privilege for me. There is a poetry that emanates from the places between the old ruins, all the engraved names, the vegetation, the ivy that grows on the graves… As we stroll through the alleys, we witness time passing and we become aware that we are is not the fruit of a spontaneous generation, but that several people preceded us. It is through outside views that we realize that it is not typical to live here. Once through the door of our apartment, we are like in any house.

You are preparing to experience your sixth All Saints’ Day at Père-Lachaise. Is this a highlight in the life of the cemetery?

It’s the most important time of the year. Our teams have been mobilized since September, we do not take leave. We prepare for All Saints’ Day like chocolatiers prepare for Christmas. Coming to the cemetery on November 1st is a tradition dear to the French: we are expecting more than twenty-five thousand people. For most of them, this is probably the only time of year they will visit a cemetery. We need to make it as welcoming as possible.

Père-Lachaise has the particularity of welcoming nearly 3 million visitors all year round. If it contains a heritage to visit, it is not a place for walking like any other…

Today when we think of Père-Lachaise, we actually have the image of an open-air museum because there are personalities from all over the world who rest there. The vast majority of tourists behave with decency and respect, but there is always a minority who allows themselves to do things as if it were a park. We had to go to court to, for example, ban escape games and remind people that a cemetery is not a space for playing.

Père-Lachaise is above all a place of rest and active memory with three thousand new deceased people each year and six thousand cremations. Some tourists are sometimes surprised to see the hearses, the daily funerals and the bereaved families.

What exactly is the role of the cemetery in the grieving process?

Today, we are almost ashamed to be in mourning, there is an injunction to move on.

Before mourning was more visible, there were hangings in front of houses, funeral wakes. However, taking the time to do this mourning work is essential. Cemeteries provide a place to gather and move forward in this process.

But it’s not just mourning. Everyone comes to the cemetery for what they want to find there. It is a space that allows you to take stock, to meditate, to cultivate your secret garden. We come out with a better state of mind than when we went in. I often say to my loved ones: come and visit cemeteries while you are alive, don’t wait until you are dead!

You watch over both the dead and the living…

Above all, I am at the service of the living whom I accompany in a painful moment. I receive the relatives of the deceased and I take the time to listen to them. I see my job as a local service and I feel useful to families. That’s what matters most to me.

Do you think there is a taboo around death?

This unfortunately remains a big taboo in France. I observe it in the families I receive. Some were unable to discuss with their dying parents or spouse the question of the destination of the cemetery or cremation, for example.

However, it is important to be able to talk about death in simple words: “At some point there will be an end and here is what I would like…” Talking about death does not make you die!

Birds, fox cubs… On your Instagram account you regularly photograph the animals that inhabit the cemetery. Why is this important to you?

During confinement, when my team and I were going through a difficult period, I came face to face with a fox cub. Seeing such a cute little animal, full of life and lightness frolicking among the graves made us all smile again. I then measured how much we needed this life between death. We seek every day to preserve it and let the fauna and flora flourish. Now, there are four adult foxes who reside at the cemetery year-round. Their presence does good to the bereaved who know that their deceased rest surrounded by this life.

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