A Death on Vacation

In 52 BC, the Roman demagogue politician Publius Clodius was traveling on the Appian Way when he met his political rival Milo coming the opposite direction. It was a chance meeting; one was going on vacation while the other was returning. The hatred and rivalry had often spilled onto the streets of Rome. Each man controlled street gangs to do their bidding to rig the local elections. Now, they were forced to pass each other on the main Roman road running north-south. Someone said something to the other; perhaps the guards taunting each other? Perhaps each man said something? Whatever it was, the result was a brawl that left Clodius dead and Milo on trial for murder and subsequent exile.

Fast forward two thousand years later, and these men are reduced to stone columns and tombs in the city where they died. Curious tourists pass by the tombs and mausoleums while tour guides give just the name of the man whose inscription and memory are faded. Perhaps the guide knew some juicy story about the dead man. Or the guide would have no idea who was buried there. Indeed, the catacombs, the burial place of thousands of Romans, are on the tourist map and there is no way to know everyone’s story.

For me, I visited two famous cemeteries while I was in France in 2003. I walked along the tombs where hundreds of famous French and other notable people. I tried to see how many people I could recognize along the silent stone streets. The place: Pere La-Chaise.


I saw the headstones for the French-Polish composer Frederic Chopin, playwright Moliere (born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), French scientist Joseph Gay-Lussac, and a handful of Napoleon Bonaparte’s marshals: Ney, St. Cyr, Suchet, MacDonald, Massena, and Murat. There was also the English writer Oscar Wilde whose stone is covered with red lipstick kisses.

The other famous cemetery in France is the American cemetery in Normandy which is actually US soil granted in perpetuity to the USA. US flags fly from both flagpoles, not the French flag. It is an extremely moving experience to consider the scope of the invasion, the lives lost and the sacrifices made. Image

Rows of cross stand in formation, as if the dead stand once more at attention, waiting for the final resurrection. As they stood in formation at parade rest in life, they now sleep in formation. They sleep with their brothers-in-arms, Ranger next to paratrooper next to infantryman. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg. Unlike Pere La Chaise where the only requirement for entry is that one is a famous dead person, the American cemetery’s entry requirement was death in combat in defense of liberty and often anonymously. Americans died for that patch of ground. No one died on Pere La Chaise; they are just buried there.

One day, I hope to see the famous Roman catacombs. Until then, I can only read about them. Happy travels everyone!

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