To know the whys and hows of this project, that’s here.
1. Jesus, Johnny, Elvis and Jim
Is a pilgrimage necessarily religious? This is what I wondered when fans of Johnny Hallyday told me they went on a pilgrimage to the tomb of their idol. What?! You don’t know Johnny Hallyday?! He was our French Elvis. USA today once he was “the greatest rock star you never heard of”. Since his death, hundreds of fans have gathered at monthly masses in the Paris church where his funerals took place in 2017, then attended by the latest three French presidents. At these masses, numerous fans told me about their pilgrimage to his grave … in the Caribbean.
Intrigued, I looked for a definition of pilgrimages and found this one in the Encyclopedia of pilgrimages: it is “a journey to a special place, in which both the journey and the destination have spiritual significance to the journeyer”. They are thus not limited to the religious framework.
Davidson’s and Gitlitz’s encyclopedia of pilgrimage is called: from Ganges to Graceland. If, for Hindus, Ganges is a pilgrimage site, Graceland is of similar significance for millions of Elvis fans. Indeed, fans flock to Memphis to see where Elvis lived, what he owned, and where he is buried. Without talking about a Presley religion (which some have tried to create), many Elvis fans acknowledge that coming to Graceland – the land of Grace – is of spiritual significance to them.
I then decided to investigate this phenomenon. To do this, I went to another significant pilgrimage site, but in my home town, Paris: Jim Morrison’s grave. As the major attraction of Pere Lachaise, it captures most of the 2 million yearly visitors of this cemetery, where Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas are also buried. On the grave of the leader of the Doors, I interviewed numerous pilgrims from France, Netherlands, Germany, the US, etc. Some have come here for thirty years to spend a moment with Jim, or have a sex, drug & rock and roll time, in communion with other fans. And when one of them dies, his ashes are scattered … over Jim’s grave.
Graceland for Elvis and Pere Lachaise for Jim Morrison are often put forward as the two main pilgrimages of the modern Western culture. And what do they have in common (except music)? United States of America.
2. The grave rush
The US shaped or nurtured myths with the help of Broadway, Hollywood and today Netflix. These American myths are today sites of devotion for pilgrims. This is the case for Selma’s bridge regarding Martin Luther King, for St John Coltrane church in San Francisco for Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield or Jack Kerouac’s one in Lowell, for Steve Prefontaine car crash site in Eugene, or for Little Big Horn for Custer’s last stand.
To do these pilgrimages, some people are ready to spend a lot of money or to face dangers. Through Skype, I interviewed Piotr, a Belarussian guy who travelled to Alaska for his honeymoon. Objective: hike to the famous Bus 142 out of love for adventure, nature and freedom. The values praised of Christopher McCandless, the Into the Wild hero, who died in this bus in 1992. Piotr managed crossed the perilous river separating the bus from civilization. But his wife did not make it and lost her life. It was in July 2019.
The interest for morbid sites has recently grown with the dark tourism trend. When they’re not in Chernobyl, dark pilgrims go to Ground Zero in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, follow the trail of Kennedy Assassination in Dallas, or the one of the Manson family crimes in Los Angeles.
A podcast to encounter pilgrims
From France, I’ll fly to Alaska to hitch-hike (again) across the US, from one pilgrimage site to the other, passing through Jack Kerouac’ grave for the 50th anniversary of his death. I’ll get inside these communities to interview pilgrims, collect their touching stories, stories of dramatic passion, to share them with you.
We’ll go and encounter these people right on the remembrance sites of myths, heroes and tragedies of America – especially on graves and death places. And up to the “churches”, festivals and amusement parks dedicated to them.
In this adventure, we’ll understand cultural cults in America, and their rituals. For the tribute paid to America’s heroes is no further than one step away from religious devotion.
When analyzing these tributes, we’ll have a unique view on American society and the influence of American culture throughout the world – including France of course.
Ready to discover these American pilgrimages? Be patient, these podcasts are due in 2020. In the meantime, follow the progress of this project on this site, and on Instagram with #AmericanPilgrimages hashtag.