The tombstone of the painter Beauford Delaney, in Division 86 of the Cimetière Parisien de Thiais, carries a three-word epigraph: “I am home.” Delaney’s residence changed several times: born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he lived in Boston and New York before making Paris his home for the last 26 years of his life. Delaney moved there in 1953, encouraged by his close friend James Baldwin, who had settled in the City of Light a few years before. He continued painting colorful abstractions, scenes from urban life, and portraits. But for decades after Delaney’s death in 1979, it was hard to pinpoint his last known address. There was no marker on his final resting place.
Curator Sue Canterbury visited the Parisian cemetery in 2001 to research a Delaney exhibition, and after struggling to find his unadorned grave, she was relieved that at least it was intact, among many others that had been exhumed. To mark the memory of this beloved modernist artist, Canterbury found an abandoned ceramic bouquet nearby and cleaned it off, then planted it on the artist’s plot.
This bouquet helped Monique Wells, a writer specializing in the African-American presence in Paris, find Delaney’s grave a few years later. Wells went to the 225-acre cemetery in 2009 on behalf of the artist’s friends, to check whether he was still in the ground. The impoverished painter was originally buried in a grave with a six-year lease. (French burials have different grave lease terms; many artists are buried in non-renewable five-year leases.) Thiais cemetery has many illustrious permanent residents, but Delaney was buried in a pauper’s division and his dues hadn’t been paid since 1985.
Delaney died without funds or a formal will. The closest he came to documenting his last wishes was a slip of paper that he gave a friend in the 1960s, which read: “Bury me in a potter’s field.” The more Wells learned about Delaney from his friends, the more attached she grew. She petitioned the cemetery to allow her to extend the lease on Delaney’s grave. After her request was approved, she established Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, a nonprofit organization that raised funds to pay the lease extension and install a permanent tombstone. It was placed in 2010.
The colorful ceramic bouquet that Canterbury once laid on Delaney’s neglected grave now rests atop of the gray tombstone, above a small oval photograph of Delaney at his easel. Wells and some of Delaney’s friends held a memorial ceremony that was recorded by filmmaker Zachary Miller, who was moved to start working on a documentary film on the artist’s life.
Additional residents of note at Thiais cemetery include Léon Sedov (son of communist leader Léon Trotsky), Prince Serge Orloff (a descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia), and the early-20th-century artist model Alice Prin (better known as Kiki de Montparnasse).
Know Before You Go
Cimetière Parisien de Thiais is six miles south of Paris and can be reached using public transportation (metro, RER, bus). Division 86 is at the intersection of Avenue H and Avenue Centrale.