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Kiss goodbye to lipstick on tomb as Oscar Wilde grave gets makeover

John Lichfield in Paris and Mark O'Regan

Oscar Wilde wrote: "Each man kills the thing he loves. The coward does it with a kiss."

And for more than a decade, fans of Oscar Wilde have been proving his point. A craze started in the 1990s to place lipstick kisses, or daub painted lips, on the tomb of the great Irish writer in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Eventually there were so many kisses that the grease in the lipstick and the oil in the paint threatened to destroy the limestone of the tomb, which includes a celebrated image of a 'flying angel-demon' by the Anglo-American sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Yesterday, 111 years to the day of his death in a Paris hotel at the age of 46, Wilde was given sanctuary from those who claim to love him.

In a moving ceremony, his only grandchild, Merlin Holland, rededicated a cleansed and restored tomb, now surrounded by an elegant glass screen.

More than 200 people gathered to hear the actor Rupert Everett read from Wilde's prose poem 'De Profundis', written while he was imprisoned in Reading jail for acts of homosexuality.

Mr Everett hailed Wilde's "force" and the "amazing trajectory of his life".

Junior Arts Minister Dinny McGinley paid tribute to a "very great Irishman, who has moved people the world over".

The "modest" ?50,000 cost of restoration has been covered by the Irish Government and the private Ireland Fund of France.

Mr Holland (66) a British writer based in France, campaigned for the restoration of his grandfather's tomb with the help of Sheila Pratschke, the director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris.

"The Irish Government has recognised the importance of cultural investment despite the crisis of material values that we are all going through," Mr Holland said yesterday.

"It cost in excess of ?50,000. It was 95pc funded by the Irish Government. I'm sure there will be people saying, 'why in a time of crisis do they spend money on some thing like this', but God bless Ireland for doing it," he explained.

"The whole thing was started by the director of the Office of Public Works over 18 months ago, before the crisis hit Ireland in September 2010. We were perfectly prepared to accept that this thing would not go through.

"After the crisis it was still all up in the air. But they said that this still should be done because it's important. It wasn't something that was decided after the crisis, it came before," Mr Holland said.

"It is significant at a time of world financial crisis that a nation that has had a lot of great writers still believes in something called culture.

"The problem was that when people kissed the tomb the grease from their lipstick would sink into the stone. The colour disappears pretty quickly but it leaves a nasty, greasy shadow," he added.

Eventually there were so many kisses that the grease in the lipstick and the oil in the paint threatened to destroy the limestone of the tomb, including its celebrated 'flying angel-demon' image.

In 1895, Wilde was jailed in England for being homosexual, something which impacted greatly on Mr Holland's father and uncle.

"I think it had less impact on my father than it did on my uncle who was a year and a half older and who knew what was going on.

"My father didn't have clue -- he didn't know what had sent his father to prison until he was about 17 years old. He thought his father had been sent to prison for embezzling money.

"The effect on my father for many years was profound because Oscar Wilde was seen as the naughty boy of English letters until well up into the 1920s. It was without question extremely difficult for my father."

Pere Lachaise, in north-eastern Paris, is the most visited cemetery in the world.

It is the last resting place of, among others, the composers Chopin and Bizet, the writer Marcel Proust, the singer Edith Piaf and the American rock star Jim Morrison.

A graffiti epidemic in the cemetery began when Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was buried there in 1971.

At one point, every fourth tomb on the route to his grave was daubed with arrows or scrawled with the words: "This way to Jim."

When the Morrison graffiti calmed down in the late 1990s, the Wilde graffiti took over.

"Something had to be done," Mr Everett said yesterday. "Okay, so people want to express themselves. Well, baby, from now on you can kiss the glass screen." (© Independent News Service)

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