Kings of the Dead: Cimetière des Rois

The grave of John Calvin.

February 17, 2019 — I don’t care how good they are at making chocolate or accelerating particles, I wasn’t going to leave Geneva on my first trip there without visiting a Swiss cemetery. That’s just me. Fortunately, an important one was only a mile from my hotel…the Cemetery of Kings.

In the local tongue, that’s Cimetière des Rois, which is actually a nickname. As is another of its monikers, the Geneva Pantheon. Its real name is Cimetière de Plainpalais. But they all add up to a place to plant a bunch of important dead people. Cimetière des Rois is jampacked with writers and artists and musicians and scientists and leaders. It’s an outdoor Westminster Abbey with strict rules for whose flesh can decay there.


The beginnings of the cemetery were slightly less auspicious than that. It was established in 1482 to take in victims of the Black Plague that was ravaging Europe at the time. But it’s feeling much better now.

The cemetery is on the Rue de Rois, hemmed in on all side by city. It’s small, around seven acres and divoted with only about 350 burials. However, it seems even smaller because most of the markers are gone, and the ones that remain are spaced out around the cemetery’s wide paths and open sections. I visited it early in the morning, and the few people I saw there were using it as a shortcut on their way to work.


Overall, the place looked more like a sculpture garden than a rot garden. No two stones look the same and many are extravagant monuments that would work just as well in a town plaza. And, in fact, Cimetière des Rois has been used as a sculpture garden in the past, in 2016. A green metal park bench with an overhang shaped like a question mark is one of the installations that remains to this day (Claudio Colucci’s Question Time).


Honestly, I’d never heard of most of the famous dead dirting in that cemetery. In fact, I’d only heard of two. One was the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986. He had grown up in Geneva and returned their later in life. His gravestone is roughhewn and engraved with Nordic and English imagery to evoke the myths he was fascinated with in his work.


The other was theologian John Calvin, one of the principal figures of the Protestant Reformation and the guy who made predestination so cool that they named the theology after him. His grave was a small nub of stone surrounded by a decorative fence. It’s not the exact location of his body, as he was buried in an unmarked grave to avoid being canonized into cultdom after his death. The stone has marked it as the traditional site since the 1800s.


After I found those two graves, I saw another item of interest. At first I thought it was just another grave. A large, flat stone rectangle flush with the ground. But it was the word I recognized among all the French on what I thought was the epitaph that caught my eye: “Secrets.” A quick Google translation later, and I realized this was another art installation from 2016. It’s called Tomb of Secrets, and it’s by Sophie Calle. She likes to stick slotted monuments in graveyards for people to insert paper with their most intimate secrets written on them. She has another, an obelisk this time, at Green-Wood Cemetery in New York.

I stayed for about an hour, and then left feeling better about my time in Geneva. I’d seen my Swiss cemetery. Now I was ready to check out the city’s chocolate and get my particles accelerated.