Yesterday was our first day in Paris. After settling into our apartment on Rue Bonaparte a few blocks from the Seine, we walked to Les Invalides, Napoleon I’s burial site. During the mile-long walk, I was reminded that the truism about Parisians having style is remarkably true. Trim women gracefully navigate cobblestones on spiked heels, everyone wears a scarf, and elegant shop windows whip your eyes in all directions.
True to French form, Napoleon’s grave is elegance incarnate. Nineteen years after his death, his remains made the long journey home from St Helena to Paris, and ultimately the current site at Les Invalides. In almost perfect condition (some claim due to the preservative properties of arsenic poisoning), his body was sealed in six nested coffins, culminating in the red quartzite sarcophagus you see here.
On this Parisian voyage, as I contemplated the memorial after many thousands of pages of research on the man, its loneliness struck me. Appropriately surrounded with past glories, there he lay on an isolated island, magnetic yet unapproachable, no loving wife or friends at his side. Of all his numerous siblings, only Joseph, always the subservient older brother, and Jerome, his youngest brother, are buried in the same edifice.
Although we Americans erect cold monuments to our heroes, mostly we connect to them in highly personal ways. Thus, George Washington is more Mt. Vernon than the obelisk that bears his name; Thomas Jefferson stands not only on the Tidal Basin, but lives more poignantly at Monticello; and John F. Kennedy lies amidst his fallen family.
Napoleon, having come from a meager background prized the elegant trappings of royalty, but mostly for the power they conferred. As a reader of Shakespeare, would he have echoed the words the Bard gave to England’s Henry V, conqueror of France, “What have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony?” Or would he have looked with vain approval at the elegant monument built in his name? Perhaps, both.