Thanatopsis in Paris, TN

In March I traveled to Tennessee for my grandmother’s funeral. This journey involved convening with my immediate family in Nashville before continuing on for the funeral itself in the town of Paris, TN.

I previously wrote gushingly (and verbosely) about Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas after seeing the film for the first time. The film’s evocative imagery and thematic depth profoundly moved me, but it also struck a particular personal resonance due to my own history with Paris, TN. Like the titular Texas town of Wenders’ film Paris, TN also bears nomenclatural relation with a more famous namesake. The Parisian connection is played up by iconographic allusions throughout the Tennessee town.

In the film, the character of Travis is preoccupied with the town of Paris, TX in part because he believes that he was conceived there, that the place represents the point of origin for his entire existence. Travis also remarks upon the significance of his having been named there by his parents, and there is a throughline in the film relating to the power of naming to fix identity and direct destiny. Paris, TN has played a similar role in my own biography as the place my progenitors hailed from as well as the source for my given and family names. The town thus held special fascination for me growing up by representing both geographic and nomenclatural points of origin for my sense of self.

Paris, TN has always existed as a realm of ghosts in my life, a point of convergence between the land of the living and domain of the dead. This stems in part from its status as a quasi-mythic location in my personal history, a place that was unknown to me but featured prominently in family stories in which I heard my relatives give intimate accounts of people I had never met. It was also the location of family burial plots, a place I seemed to only visit for the purposes of attending a funeral or holding vigil at a gravesite. When I was younger I mostly reckoned Paris as the place where I saw my own name engraved on tombstones.

Paris still is this place, of course, as this most recent visit attested. It is still the place of small hillside cemeteries where I contemplate the grave markers of my forebearers amidst a backdrop of industrial pork processing plants. It is a place for reconnecting with the past, both personal and otherwise. I’ve obviously traveled to Paris for funerals on prior occasions but on this visit my family and I lingered a while after to visit other sites in the town. I’d always known that my southern family roots had instilled in me an abiding love for fried catfish, but I didn’t know how prominently catfish were featured in landmarks and other iconography around Paris, or that the town bills itself as home of the world’s largest fish fry. I also learned about Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, and its outsized role in the area’s economic history.

The eulogies at my grandmother’s service reminded me of all the countless threads that make up the tapestry of a person’s life, and provided me with a poignant recollection that I come from a lineage of teachers and preachers, a recognition that broadened my typically myopic perspective on the daily travails of my professional work to a more encompassing sense of purpose and human endeavor. Of course, this lineage is not exclusively constituted by teachers or preachers but includes also farmers, butchers, and mail carriers, amongst other occupations. I’m grateful for a place (and the attendant times) that provides a space for such reflection and introspection, and thankful in particular that in Paris, TN the landmarks of my family history are not found solely in graveyards.

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