Friends think I’m macabre (or maybe just weird) when I urge them to visit Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But this is no common graveyard: It’s a living museum, filled with the stories of more than one million souls.
The luminaries’ names span the centuries — from the 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abélard to the 20th-century Lizard King (Jim Morrison). Frédéric Chopin and Gertrude Stein are here. So are the writers Honoré de Balzac and Marcel Proust, the dancer Isadora Duncan … painter Eugène Delacroix … the list goes on and on.
Chopin’s tomb is always adorned with flowers and little Polish flags.
And it’s all set in 110 acres of contemplative, tree-lined cobblestone streets.
Père Lachaise is so vast that if you wander along the walls — or pause atop the hills — you may even forget you’re in a cemetery.
How it all started
Père Lachaise was born out of necessity when Paris’ other cemeteries became insalubrious and overcrowded. Under Emperor Napoléon’s authority, a magistrate named Nicholas Frochot annexed a parcel owned by some retired Jesuit priests (whose order included Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, for whom the cemetery is named).
When Père Lachaise opened on May 21, 1804, its first burial was five-year-old Adélaïde Marie Antoinette Paillard de Villeneuve — the daughter of a bellhop in Faubourg St. Antoine. Sadly, her family didn’t buy a plot “in perpetuity” and all traces of her have disappeared.
Parisians mostly shunned the new cemetery, however, until Nicholas Frochot had a stroke of marketing genius: In 1817 he decided to reinter of the beloved 17th-century French authors Molière and Jean de La Fontaine — and soon Père Lachaise was the place to be dead in Paris.
Héloïse and Abélard were also reinterred as part of Frochot’s plan, though there is considerable doubt that the remains actually belong to the star-crossed lovers. But who cares? It’s a lovely monument, and it keeps their story alive.
In fact, Père Lachaise contained mostly modest family plots and communal pits until the first sculptural tombstone was installed in 1809 — a mother’s tribute to her fallen son.
After that, the race was on to keep up with the (dead) Joneses. That’s when Gothic family chapels of all sizes started popping up …
… and funerary statues became a thing.
The stories of one million lives
In addition to being beautiful, many of the sculptures at Père Lachaise are also meaningful. Some tell us who the person was in life, like this simple homage to a painter-poet.
Other memorials are more ornate, like this sepulcher for Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Under the stage name Robertson he performed a “phantasmagoria” show with optical illusions so shocking that his audiences would faint. He was also a keen hot-air balloonist, although sadly there are no balloons among the bats.
Then there’s the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach, whose flair for drama and romance extend into the afterlife as he climbs out of his tomb, clutching a rose.
Victor Noir’s tomb is known for romance and drama of an entirely different kind. Born Yvan Salmon, Noir adopted his pen name when he went to work for La Marseillaise newspaper in Paris. In January 1870 he was sent to arrange the details of a duel, but instead got into a scuffle with Prince Pierre Bonaparte and was shot dead on the spot.
Sculptor Jules Dalou sketched the scene and — *ahem* — “erected” a life-sized statue of the fallen 22-year-old. Legend says that rubbing the statue’s manhood will bring fertility, enhance your sex life, or fetch a husband within the year. So many women have molested the poor statue that it may soon need repair.
Of course, stories like these aren’t always so evident: Only recently did I learn that Oscar Wilde isn’t alone in his tomb, for instance. Next to him — in an urn — are the ashes of his friend Robert Baldwin Ross, who commissioned the monument but is not mentioned on the statue.
I also read somewhere that the groundskeeper of Père Lachaise found the enormous “member” on the statue so scandalous that he chiseled it off and used it as a paperweight. I wonder if it has turned up on eBay yet — and if so, what keywords one might use.
More recently, thousands of women (and presumably some lipstick-toting men) have paused here to kiss Wilde’s tomb. The practice was halted a couple of years ago with the installation of plexiglass barriers, but now visitors are smooching the plastic. Things like this must drive the city officials mad.
Hidden among the more obvious tributes are many smaller, symbolic gestures — like the simple Star of David that adorns Marcel Marceau’s grave. Before he was world-famous as a mime, he joined the French Resistance against the Nazis and with his brother Alain saved dozens of Jewish children.
Another tomb that contains hidden symbolism is that of Théodore Géricault, the Romantic painter whose huge Raft of the Medusa is among the most-visited paintings in the Louvre.
But why is he shown bald and reclining? As a wealthy young man, he had two loves: painting and horses. Because these passions were sometimes at odds, though, he would have a servant shave his head so he’d resemble a convict (and be too ashamed to go out, so he would therefore stay in and paint).
Sadly, a series of serious equestrian accidents left him disabled and eventually claimed his life. Perhaps that’s why he is shown unable to stand, reclining with his palette for all eternity.
The sheer number of stories like these is so overwhelming that you’re bound to miss a few of them on the first (or ninth) visit. This memorial had always caught my eye, for example —
— but not until yesterday did I learn that it’s dedicated to Jean-Joseph Carriès … a fine sculptor and miniaturist himself. He was only 39 when he died of pleurisy.
Although a few of the tombs have been classified as historical monuments, most are private property — which is why they’re in various degrees of (dis)repair.
Still, enough vestiges remain of even ordinary lives to provide a tangible and compelling connection to the past.
And this is why I come here: To be reminded that no matter how small — or how large — our lives may be, each of us has a story. To be reminded that our actions will influence how we’ll be remembered … and that the most permanent and worthwhile of all achievements is to love and to be loved.
Are you dying to see Père Lachaise for yourself? You’ll find directions at the bottom of this post.
But if you desire a more permanent stay, you may be disappointed to learn that Père Lachaise has officially been full for 60 years. There are still a handful of burials every month, however.
If you can cough up the €16,000 for a plot and meet the criteria — belonging to a family that owns a tomb “in perpetuity,” keeling over in Paris, or having an address in Paris when you cast off your mortal coil — you, too, could be buried among the luminaries at Père Lachaise.
IF YOU GO
Admission to Père Lachaise is free.
Hours are seasonal: From November to mid-March it’s open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 5:30, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. From mid-March to October it’s generally open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 6:00, and Sundays and holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. NOTE: To enjoy a leisurely visit, please give yourself at least two hours before closing time.
Maps of Père Lachaise are for sale at many of the florists surrounding the cemetery, or you can download one for free from the city’s website. This same free map is also available at the office (“Conservation”) near the Porte Principale on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Para personas de habla Hispana, este mapa también se ofrece en Español.
Getting there is easy via public transportation. Located in the 20th arrondissement, Père Lachaise has two entrances. The main entrance is on the Boulevard Ménilmontant, with nearby Métro stops at Père Lachaise (lines 2 and 3) and Philippe Auguste (line 2). You can also take bus routes 61 or 69 to the main gate.
The second entrance is on the rue des Rondeaux, served by the Gambetta Métro station (line 3) or several bus routes (26, 60, 61, 64, 69, 102).
Still want more? Here’s a feast of Paris cemetery trivia, and Paris’s official web-guide to its municipal cemeteries.
Text and all images © Heather Munro.