By Rebecca Smith
In September of 2020 various French dignitaries, including artists, politicians and intellectuals, petitioned President Macron to move the bodies of the poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, to the Pantheon in Paris, where many prominent French literary names in history, among them, Voltaire, Dumas, Rousseau, Malraux and Hugo, are entombed (similarly, in 2010, President Sarkozy solicited the re-internment of Albert Camus there). Rimbaud and Verlaine had been refused burial there due to their licentious lives, marked by sex, drugs and criminality. But the petition argued, “It would be only right to celebrate their memory today by bringing them together to the Pantheon, alongside other great literary figures.”
With that description, one would expect Molière, clearly one of the most famed writers of France, to be ensconced there, as well. But Molière’s body is found in Père Lachaise Cemetery. How it got there is a story in itself.
Molière died following his final performance in The Imaginary Invalid - too suddenly to receive last rites or to renounce the acting profession, which was required at the time. Armande, his wife, requested that Louis XIV arrange a church burial. Louis, fighting the archbishop of Paris, and reportedly using a loophole applying to infants who died before baptism and possibly relegating the body to a distant corner allowing for suicides, finally succeeded in having him entombed in consecrated but nondescript ground within the cemetery of St. Joseph. It was a night burial, rather discreet and circumspect.
During the French Revolution, 130 years after his death, the revolutionaries saw political value in Molière and tried to claim him as one of their own. He, was, after all, the “common folk” - the son of an upholsterer, never recognized as a member of the upper classes and shabbily treated on his death. In 1791 new theater laws were enacted eliminating all royal control. Any company could produce any play it wanted. Molière’s plays were performed more than ever, although it most often were his lesser “low” pieces that were the most popular. His greater works were revised, removing all royal elements.
In 1792, the revolutionary government wanted to rename a section of town after Molière. His body was to be exhumed but its exact location was unknown. Regardless, a body was dug up, pronounced to be Molière and was moved to a church basement, then to municipal offices and finally to a sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments where it remained until 1817.
It was at that time that Père Lachaise, a grand park and cemetery, was being developed in the 20th arrondissement but, located so far east of the city, it held little appeal to most Parisians burying their dead. Adding a celebrity like Molière to the funeral grounds was a promotional idea to win over the community. Seemingly, it worked; it can be argued that, without Molière, Père Lachaise might not have come to be.
It is, it has been reported, the most visited cemetery in the world and is a major tourist attraction. i.e. a tremendous boon for France itself. It is estimated to hold 300,000 – 1,000,000 bodies and Molière’s plot one of the most visited sites. Alongside him are some of the most popular figures in history; his neighbors include Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Honoré de Balzac, Isadora Duncan and, Molière’s friend, Jean de La Fontaine. Jim Morrison of The Doors is a big draw.
Whether the bones are his or not, the presence of Molière lives on illustriously at Père Lachaise, probably to a much greater extent than if he lay in the Pantheon. Location, location, location, after all.
His life was not an easy one, filled with struggle and pain, but he may be enjoying a rosy afterlife.
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