Postcard from Paris by Vivienne Walt

From Time Magazine, July 2007.

Even on a gray day in Paris last week, there was one place you could find a crowd of tourists from places as varied as Rome, Siberia and Orlando, Fla.–Jim Morrison’s grave in Père-Lachaise cemetery. Forget Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and the hundreds of other luminaries interred among its chestnut trees. The frontman of the Doors has been the cemetery’s headline draw ever since the rock star’s untimely death in Paris at the age of 27 in July 1971.

Thirty-six years later, the anniversary of his passing is still one of the cemetery’s main events, as fans gather around the tombstone to light candles, sing songs and remember an artist and an era that are still very much alive to them. Earlier this month, the band’s keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, and guitarist, Robby Krieger, flew in to mark the day. “People are always interested in his life, and of course his death and his words and music,” the Doors’ manager, Jeff Jampol, told TIME. “All but his life lives on.”

Céline Sauls, a 31-year-old Parisian who emigrated to Orlando 10 years ago, was back to pay her respects. Just before she moved from France, one of the last things she did was to sit atop Morrison’s tombstone, tell him about her plans to live in the U.S., and say goodbye.

Such heartfelt individual meditations have taken a collective toll on the cemetery. Vandals long ago dismantled the outsize bust of Morrison that once topped the grave. By then, the grave site had been covered in graffiti by fans. Other tombstones, vandalized with arrows labeled Jim that directed the way to Morrison’s grave, have since been wiped clean. Cemetery staff blocked off the plot with metal barricades a few years ago. Asked for directions, a staff member sniffs: “We are a cemetery, not a tourist service.”

Père-Lachaise is not just any cemetery. It has been a stage for grand episodes of French history for centuries. Originally a country retreat, it was named after the confessor of King Louis XIV, whose successor expelled the Jesuit priests living there in 1763. It became a cemetery in 1804. Then, in 1871–a century before Morrison’s death–Parisian anarchists staged a pitched battle against their foes amid the tombstones; 147 survivors were executed against the cemetery wall and buried in a mass grave.

This French history is in direct competition with an industry of rock nostalgia. One block from the cemetery, a café displays old Doors concert posters in its windows. Florists near the site sell Morrison T shirts for $22, along with wreaths. “I listen to his music all the time,” says Olesya Sergeeva, a 21-year-old student from Siberia who is in Paris on a summer work program. She had headed to the cemetery on her first day off from waiting tables at a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

New controversy hit this month with the release of a French book titled The End: Jim Morrison. Author Sam Bernett, former manager of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus nightclub, claims that instead of dying of a heart attack in a bathtub–the official police version of his death–Morrison overdosed on heroin on a toilet seat in the club. “I wanted to call the police or rescue people to help,” he told TIME. But he was dissuaded by Morrison’s drug dealers, he says, who instead had the body brought home to the apartment Morrison had rented, and staged his body in the bathtub. Among those who helped that night was Patrick Chauvel, now a seasoned war photographer. “We carried him in a blanket and got him the hell out of there,” Chauvel recalls. “The five or six people who knew, who were there that night, agreed to just forget about it.”

But if those witnesses chose to forget, Morrison’s fans vividly remember his death, regardless of the circumstances. At Père-Lachaise cemetery, Sergeeva, who was born 15 years after Morrison passed away, shakes her head and says, “His death was such a shock.”

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