Visiting Edith Wharton’s Grave
During the fall of 2012, when the Wharton Society collected funds to have the grave of Edith Wharton cleaned, I told Society officers that I would be in Paris in January 2013 and expected that I would have time to visit her grave in the Cimitière des Gonards in the town of Versailles; after all, I would be in Paris for a few days checking out various literary sites in preparation for a “Literary Paris” trip I would be taking students on the following year. In the end, though, my scant five days in Paris in 2013 did not give me enough time to make the trip to Versailles, even though it is less than an hour from Paris by train. Also mildly daunting was the task of finding the cemetery and Wharton’s grave; I had been to the Palace of Versailles and could find the cemetery relative to the Palace thanks to online maps, but looking at something on a computer screen is, of course, different from actually doing it.
In January 2014 I was luckier—and better organized. I would be spending ten days in Paris with my “Literary Paris” class. Moreover, one of the texts we had read was Wharton’s A Son at the Front, so that my students were familiar with Wharton’s biography and with a range of “Wharton” locations in Paris, from the very well-heeled Ave. Marigny, where Anderson and Julia Brant live, to the much scruffier regions of Montmartre, where John Campton has his studio. Moreover, our plans included a half-day trip to the Palace of Versailles. Thanks to a good travel agent, an amazingly skilled bus driver (at two different points he squeezed past parked trucks with about four inches to spare), and a helpful tour guide, the entire busload of students visited the Palace of Versailles and then proceeded to the Cimitière des Gonards. Happily, our guide, Catherine, had thought to check the hours of the cemetery ahead of time. It had never occurred to me that a cemetery might close during the lunch hour, but this being France, that was, in fact, the case: the entrance to the cemetery is closed between noon and 2 p.m. Our bus driver got us there by 11:40.
Then the adventure began. I knew that the cemetery was relatively small and had heard that Wharton’s grave was straight back from the entrance. How hard could this be, I thought? Once we got out of the bus, some of the students surged ahead through the entrance; the wise Catherine stopped at the little office inside the entrance and spoke to the gardien, the keeper of the place. This being 2014, the names of those interred are, of course, in a data base. She looked up “Wharton” and found nothing. I knew that the spelling of Wharton’s name is sometimes confusing to the French, and suggested the spelling “Warthon” instead (a much more French spelling). Still nothing. Knowing that she is buried near her dear friend Walter Berry, I suggested “Berry”—results at last! The gardien marked the location on a map (and shortly thereafter did locate Wharton’s actual gravesite in her records) and we were off.
The cemetery is relatively small, but still large enough that knowing the exact location of Wharton’s grave is necessary. We walked our way up to the correct location, past some imposing monuments, and found Wharton’s tomb, which as just as it is depicted in various photos, a solid, horizontal stone over her resting place. When I had originally thought of visiting, I had imagined going on my own or perhaps just with my husband, Warren, along; instead we were a group of twenty-two, including eighteen students. My students were interested to see her grave; the entire setting, with its graves close together and set with horizontal stones and its many mausoleums, was so different from the usual American idea of a cemetery—an open, grassy space with lots of trees, and with graves marked primarily by headstones—that the experience was, I think, culturally interesting to them rather than a solemn occasion. We flocked around Wharton’s grave to have our picture taken, the end of our detour-cum-pilgrimage.
Warren and I also located Walter Berry’s grave. I had remembered from Wharton’s biographies that his grave was “next to” hers. Apparently my memory was not quite accurate: it is not located immediately next to hers, but three graves away. Still, there is no doubt that the two are very close. We were interested in and rather saddened by the state of Berry’s tomb, which is identical to Wharton’s in form, but not well cared for. Although his name is legible, the tomb is covered in a black moss or lichen, with tufts of green moss growing in spots. If this is what Wharton’s tomb looked like before the cleaning, what a huge improvement! It is now gleaming white with her name, dates, and her chosen inscription (“Ave Crux Spes Unica”) picked out neatly in black paint. Moreover, the small stones in the area immediately around the gravestone are nearly weed-free. Near the foot of the slab is one ceramic floral ornament of the type one often finds in French cemeteries; and one person had left a plastic-wrapped flower in tribute at the foot of the stone. It made me wish I had thought to do the same.
We were not there long; it was a pleasant visit, with the sun just starting to break out of the morning’s clouds. I had a brief moment to pause and realize how close I was to Wharton’s “mortal remains,” not a phrase often in my mind but one which suddenly swam to the surface of my consciousness as I stood by her grave. Then we returned to our warm bus and our cheerful bus driver and drove back into Paris.
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A final thought: I am very glad that the Wharton Society collected funds for the cleaning of Wharton’s tomb; it is very fitting that we do so. I wonder whether this should perhaps become something we sponsor on a regular basis. We might also want to consider having Walter Berry’s tomb cleaned, or if anyone is aware of Berry descendents, we might want to alert them of the state of his tomb.
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Location of the grave:
Wharton’s grave is in the Cimitère des Gonards in the town of Versailles, which is located at 19, Rue de la Porte de Buc, 78000 Versailles. If you are traveling by train from Paris, note that the city of Versailles has two stations. The Versailles-Chantiers station is closest to the cemetery. (If you are going to the Palace of Versailles from Paris, take the RER C line to the station Versailles-Chateau-Rive Gauche.) GoogleMaps, which I consulted before I knew that the bus would be able to take us to the cemetery, gave me very reasonable walking directions from the Palace of Versailles to the cemetery. The walk would take about half an hour for the average walker.
Once in the cemetery, continue through the main entrance. Do not take your immediate left, but do take the following left, which slopes uphill. Follow this to the top of the hill, and then turn right. Wharton’s grave is in Canton (Section) D, Allee E, in the first row on the right; you will soon see it. Walter Berry’s tomb is just a little further along in the same row.
Of particular interest given Wharton’s many charitable activities during World War I and the centennial of the beginning of the Great War: the cemetery includes plots with graves of British soldiers, French soldiers from World War I and World War II, and even German soldiers. It also includes a small section of Muslim soldiers who died in the First World War. (See map.)
4571_001 Map of Edith Wharton’s Grave (.pdf file)
The cemetery includes the graves of some other notables, including Louis Blériot, who made the first airplane crossing of the English Channel in 1909, and Louis and Louis-François Cartier, of the famous Cartier jewelry company. The Wikipedia article on the cemetery is informative and includes a link to a French website about the cemetery.