A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 270

Tomato appears next to tomb - in dictionary and in Paris cemetery

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly through the mist,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

Now creepeth yon tomato anarchist.

Elegy Written In A Foreign Country Churchyard


FARMINGTON - Remember a couple of weeks back, when that Tomato War was raging over in Rochester’s French cemetery? Ecclesiastical authorities were plucking offending plants out of a gravestone urn almost as quickly as they could be replaced by a family seeking to honor one of their dead.

That family, for the past 11 summers, had harvested tomatoes from a headstone plant to commemorate a relative who grew them all his life and who regularly donated part of his crop to a Catholic orphanage. The church, however, after mulling the situation for a dozen years or so, appeared to conclude that tomatoes, if not rooted out, could lead to a breakdown of law and order, including an outbreak of marijuana cultivation.

Thus the Tomato War, which simmers yet.

* * * *

A couple of weeks back, also, I flew into Paris to stay with friends who have an apartment in the 20th arrondissement, and one morning, while nibbling on a hard-boiled egg in Cafe Gambetta, I spotted on my city map Le Ciméterie de Père Lachaise, which is probably the most famous cemetery in the French-speaking world.

Named after a 17th century Jesuit, the cemetery covers almost 110 acres, contains about 100,000 graves, vaults and tombs, and is the resting place of hundreds of painters, composers, writers, playwrights and balloonists.

My map showed that an entrance to Le Ciméterie de Père Lachaise was only a couple of hundred yards from where I sat, making an investigatory expedition almost a journalistic duty. So, buying a plan of the cemetery at a gateway flower shop, I made my way into the ancient burial ground and decided first to visit the grave of Gertrude Stein in the 94th division.

The chauvinistic tomato

Stein, an American-born writer, lived most of her life in Paris. She died in 1946, but is still well- known in the United States for a line from Sacred Emily: Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

What is less well known, state-side, is that she created an equally revered epigram in France: Tomate est une tomate est une tomate est une tomate.

Buoyed by this literary success, Stein was working on a third nigh mystical utterance when death overtook her. A devoted disciple labored hard to complete the trilogy but, sadly, most scholars agree that Aubergine est une aubergine est une aubergine est une chou de Bruxelles lacks that Steinian genius in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on. But I digress.

Back at the grave, the French, being a proud race, place no roses before Stein’s simple granite stone. As my photograph clearly shows, it is une tomate that waves in the gentle Parisian breeze as proudly as if it were the tricolor of France.



The mocking tomato

Climbing over the hill and through groves of beautiful trees, I made my way to the 68th division of the cemetery, where my map showed the composer Georges Bizet was laid to rest. Poor Bizet. He died so young; within weeks of the premiere performance of his opera, Carmen being ridiculed by fruit-hurling louts in the cheap seats.

At the end of the opening act, a number of young musicians gathered about Bizet, loudly praising the opera, as the composer wiped rotting tomatoes from his tuxedo.

"You are the first to say such things, and I fancy you will be the last," wailed the pessimistic and under-appreciated Georges.

Although Carmen has now established itself as a great work, and has ensured Bizet’s place in musical history, there are apparently those in France who continue to mock him. As my graveside picture reveals, although Bizet’s head is slightly raised and turned, it is not elevated in snootiness, but in a valiant attempt to ignore a tomato plant callously placed at the base of his stone.



The tributary tomato

In the nearby 66th division, overhung by shady trees, is the sepulcher of George-Pierre Seurat, the celebrated painter. A familiar plant is immediately obvious here (see photo), but this is no triumphant nor jingoistic tomato. Neither is it a spiteful nor a jeering tomato.

For those familiar with Seurat’s Pointillist style (in which a picture is created with hundreds of tiny bright dots of paint, rather than sweeping brushstrokes) the tomato connection is a happy one. A big thank you.

Still not with the program? Well, next time you examine a Seurat canvas, bring a magnifying glass with you, and you’ll be delighted to discover that what you thought were mere dots are, in fact, multitudes of perfectly shaped tomatoes.


The protest tomato

But climbing back up the hill to the 24th division, and dodging the back-packing hoards heading for Jim Morrison’s graffiti mess over on 6th, I stumbled upon another artist’s grave - that of Camille Corot, who vested dignity in French peasants by painting them breaking the skyline.

Now, in what seems to be an appeal to the world community, a vegetable rights activist has placed a tomato plant on Corot’s headstone, so that it, too, breaks the skyline and shrieks silently, "We are not mere plants, we are botanical companions."



The homophobic tomato

Le Ciméterie de Père Lachaise is home to so many contributors to the Arts that it would take weeks to pay homage to every deserving case, but when I saw that the playwright and scintillating wit Oscar Wilde was buried down on the tree-lined 89th division, I had to make the pilgrimage.

Harassed by the Marquess of Queensberry for leading an immoral lifestyle, Wilde was provoked into a libel lawsuit which backfired, and he went to jail for a couple of years, and then, being disgraced in English society, exited into exile, dying penniless in Paris in 1900, before reaching the age of 45.

Yet, his tomb is huge and magnificent, with a sphinx carved on one end after the title of one of his works. Around the grave, on the day I visited, flowers were strewn, and there were affectionate little poems, handwritten on scraps of paper, anchored with pebbles.

But there, tickling the Sphinx right under its nose, was a tomato plant with the hateful, unspoken message that one of the 19th century’s finest minds belonged to a fruit. I just hope the Gay Pride movement hears of this outrage and takes strong countermeasures.



The hot tomato

In the general neighborhood of Oscar’s last resting place is the grave of the torch singer Edith Piaf. She is most famous for her defiant song Je ne regrette rien/I regret nothing, which is just as well, considering her life.

She was born, somewhat inauspiciously, on a policeman’s cloak under a street lamp in Belleville, which lies just north of the Gambetta district. Who could have guessed that 48 years later (in 1963) she would be buried in Père Lachaise with 40,000 mourners present?

In the hectic interim, one of her lovers was murdered, another killed in an air crash, and she was almost shot by a pimp who was siphoning off her singing dough. During World War II, she helped the French Resistance, but after the war was over, resistance wasn’t her strong suit and there were passionate friendships with Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand and Marlene Dietrich, among many others, according to one of her album liner notes.

She was a hot tomato all right! And this might account for the mysterious tomato plant I spotted at the side of her grave, where a devoted old gentleman was paying his respects with a watering can.


Broccoli, beets and beans

Near the very heart of Le Ciméterie de Père Lachaise is the Columbarium, a quadrangle whose walls are lined with thousands of niches bearing the ashes of those choosing cremation, rather than burial. Famous ashes include those of Isadora Duncan the dancer, Max Ernst the surrealist painter and Maria Callas the opera singer. (One wonders if Callas ever had to duck a tomato while singing Carmen.)

Anyway, it is worth noting that in the center of this most sacred rectangle there is a well-tended garden, and while no tomatoes were flourishing during my visit, I did note a vigorous bed of rhubarb, thriving beet root, broccoli bursting with life, appetizing red cabbages and healthy beans twining up latticework.

It seems the French regard vegetables as proof of God’s marvelous hand every bit as much as they do flowers. What an alarming, dangerous idea!

July 28, 1999

Post Script: This column was intended to ridicule a bitter real-life squabble in Rochester, NH, between church authorities (anti-tomato) and devout parishioners (pro-tomato) which flared in June/July 1999.. 

Unfortunately my Père Lachaise photographs and information seem to be accepted as Gospel by most of the readership of the city's weekly newspaper, including a local priest and the mayor. This Farmington Corner may also have been used by the plaintiffs to bolster  a subsequent lawsuit against the Catholic Church seeking an undisturbed tomato plant in their family urn. The judge, too, may have mistaken this satire for accepted practice. because he found in favor of the aggrieved family, and the tomato plant was restored to its Rochester graveside in the summer of 2000. 

The family later sent me a card which simply said, "Thank you."


Dec. 9, 2000



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