Features & Columns

A Visit to Leonard Cohen's
Unmarked Grave

A visit to Leonard Cohen's grave in Canada stirs up old memories
Leonard Cohen is buried at an unmarked grave in the Jewish section of Mont-Royal Cemetery. Photo by Gary Singh

The Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, the romantic sharp-dressed articulator of darkness, is buried in an unmarked grave in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec.

After a career spanning more than half a century, in which his songs, poetry and travels took him to Greece, Cuba, Nashville and a Zen monastery, Leonard finally passed away last November at the age of 82. He had just released his final album, You Want It Darker, in which he appears to have known he was dying.

Leonard and his home turf of Quebec, la belle province, have a long history in my writings for this newspaper, so I had to visit his grave when returning to Montreal last week. The resulting sequence of events was mind-blowing.

Leonard is buried alongside his family in the Jewish section at the bottom of Mont-Royal Cemetery, on the hill that gave Montreal its name. The cemetery, on its northwestern side, borders the Outremont neighborhood, a Francophone locale where stately gated mansions along Chemin de la Foret line the bottom of the hill. Regal trees arch over the streets and wide grassy parking strips. It's quite comfy.

As I skulked into the cemetery, a few maintenance workers were standing there, just inside the gate. Before I said a word, they looked at me and said, "Cohen? He's right over there." They pointed a few gravestones over. They knew exactly who I was looking for, without me even asking. In other words, I didn't have to knock, the gate was open, and the gatekeepers showed me the way. Talk about symbolism.

After arriving at the gravesite, I made a pact with Leonard Cohen. I stood there, between the rocks and the flowers, and spoke to him: "Leonard, I will keep writing, you just show me how to pay the bills. Give me a sign. Anything."

Just after I left the cemetery, a warm rain started to fall, as if Mother Nature had deliberately waited until my visit was over. With no umbrella, I then high-tailed it down Boulevard du Mont-Royal and caught a bus on Avenue du Parc back to my hotel.

The entire sequence of events brought back memories of previous stories, as this was not the only instance of cosmic serendipity unfurling itself in Quebec. In 2003, I was in Quebec City, drinking in a bar called Jules et Jim, named after the film, and we wound up conversing with all sorts of colorful characters. The scene was basically the Leonard Cohen song "Closing Time," so I later recalled this crazy night in a 2009 Silicon Alleys column, right as Leonard was going back on tour and performing at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Ever since he emerged from the Zen monastery, people hoped he'd someday tour again, and there he was, hitting the road at 75.

At the time of the 2009 Oakland show, no one knew Leonard would eventually come to the HP Pavilion in San Jose—now the SAP Center—for what was initially supposed to be the last show of the tour. For that gig, I wrote a cover story for Metro, part of which was me walking around various Montreal locales related to Leonard or his songs.

Fans from all over the world came to that gig, since no one knew the tour would get extended and everyone thought that, given Leonard's age, they would never get to see him again. Israel, Finland, Japan, Russia, Australia, Brazil, Canada and countless other countries were represented in that audience, and many of those people were walking around the arena with a copy of Metro in their hands. At the show, I didn't tell a soul that I was the one who wrote the story, but the person who ran Leonard's fan club later emailed me and said he handed a copy to Leonard backstage.

That was the closest I ever got to meeting the dude. Nevertheless, I can't be anything but grateful for the mind-blowing, cyclical passages of interconnectedness that San Jose and Quebec have given me over the years.

In that sense, the show must go on. Leonard may no longer be with us in physical form, but his flame still burns. He will give me a sign and I will find a way to pay the bills.