Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Take a surprisingly pleasant stroll.
There are four large public cemeteries in Paris. In the north of the city there is the Montmartre and in the south there is another at Montparnasse. In the centre, lying under the wing of the Eiffel tower, there is the Passy. At the east of the city though, there is the largest of them all and it is called Pere Lachaise. Nowadays it is the resting place of around 1000,000 people and some say it is the most visited cemetery in the world.
The name of the cemetery comes from Pere Francois de la Chaise. He was the confessor to Louis XIV and lived in a Jesuit house in the centre of the tract.
Pere Lachaise started out as just a very small burial ground. People did not wish to end up there because it was too far from the City centre. Catholic worshippers did not wish to end up there because the location had not been consecrated by the Church. In 1804 Napoleon had been appointed Emperor of France and within just a few days he declared Pere Lachaise to be officially open to the public. He declared that all people had the right to be buried regardless of race or religion. The take up remained scanty.
The first person to be buried after the opening was a little five year old girl called Adelaide Paillard de Villeneuve. She was the daughter of a humble hotel porter and her internment took place on 21 May, 1804. Right at the beginning, Pere Lachaise contained only 13 graves. Paris officials had to devise a ‘marketing strategy’.
They organised the transfer of the remains of Moliere and Jean de la Fontaine buried elsewhere in the City. They were well known figures from the times. This was conducted as a public ceremony and began to attract the attention of other ‘applicants’. By 1812 the cemetery contained the remains of over 800 people. Then in 1817, with great aplomb, the remains of a certain Pierre Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil were transferred and placed under a canopy constructed from fragments of a well known Paris chapel. These people were a young couple that had held very strong romantic attachments. Lovers or people searching for love at the time, would leave letters under the canopy hoping to find fulfilment for themselves. The romance eternally associated with Paris had spread even to the graveyards.
The pomp and circumstance had the intended effect. People wanted to be buried amongst the rich, famous and the romantic. By 1830 there were more than 33000 permanent occupants building towards the one million of today.
The cemetery continues to be run in a very modern business style. Burial plots are available on 50, 30 and 10 year allocations. The last option of course is the cheapest. When the tenure expires and is not renewed somehow, the bodies are excavated and taken to the very grand cremation chapel within the grounds. The bones are burned and the ashes are kept nearby. The crematorium is large and impressive and the ceremonies are conducted with great gravitas. The ashes of the cremated corpses are securely stored within the walls outside. They are all marked with a named plinth in neat rows.
Pere Lachaise cemetery also embraces the location where 147 last defenders of worker’s rights from the Belleville district of the City were shot on the 28 May 1871. It is called the Communards Wall and is a collection point for people today standing for a left wing France. Strangely, Adolphe Theirs is also buried in the cemetery. He was the French President who presided over the execution and his grave is sometimes subjected to vandalism.
Many of the tomb monuments are a little like telephone boxes. Flowers or even gifts can be left inside and remain protected from the elements. There are graves too containing multiple remains from family groups resting amongst each other. Death and cemeteries are seen so much more as an art form in French culture. The idea seems to sustain a much less gloomy, almost cheerful, environment somehow.
Nowadays there are many well known individuals whose bodies are buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. The monuments attract many curious, almost excited, visitors as celebrity icons. People go to look with great interest and enthusiasm. It is a mortal form of show business with many people searching with anticipation and eagerness. A visit to the cemetery is an event that so many people of all ages really plan carefully and look forward to.
The Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde is buried in Pere Lachaise. His grave headstone is a prominent, carefully sculptured and contemporary carving. The location is visited by many people from all over the world on a daily basis.
Edith Piaf is also buried in the cemetery. She was one of the finest singers in French history. Her music is still played all over the world. December 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of her birth. It was really the striking sound of her voice that saved her from a life of prostitution.
The composer Frederic Chopin has his tomb in Pere Lachaise. His gravestone is one of the earlier ones and is displayed prominently above the ground on a concrete plinth. Pissarro, one of the most distinguished of the impressionist painters, also has his resting place marked in the cemetery. It is a clean, simple and fresh design of headstone and is overlooked by a well trimmed green bush.
A gravestone that is almost permanently surrounded by visitors marks the resting place of Jim Morrison. He was the widely famous, almost worshipped, American rock musician. His short life was full, inventive and dynamic. He died at the young age of 27. His headstone is always covered in flowers to this day.
There is also a modern day monument to the passengers and crew of Air France flight 447 that crashed into the South Atlantic Ocean in June, 2009. The monument is polished and up to the minute. The names of all of the lost people are carefully recorded on it. It is simply a shrine rather than a gravestone. There are no bodies and none were ever recovered.
There are literally hundreds of well known and celebrity remains of people buried in Pere Lachaise. A chart bearing prominent names and locations is displayed at the entrance gate. Every headstone tells a story and reminds so many people of so many encounters and memories. The cemetery is built on a gently sloping hill side in Paris in the 20th arrondissement on the eastern side of the city. To walk through it is almost to visit the last 200 years of French history. The pathways are cobbled and elegantly maintained. It is like walking along a stretch of peaceful country lanes and going back through time.
These days a person has to almost qualify to be allocated a burial plot in Pere Lachaise. They need to have been born in Paris or have lived and worked in France. A visit is a pleasant, pleasurable and occasionally exciting experience. It is a wonderfully peaceful place to be where time seems to stand still. Visit the website www.bonjourlafrance.com/france-tourist-attractions/pere-lachaise-cemetery.htm
Eight original supporting photos:
- Telephone boxes
- Flight 447 memorial
- Oscar Wilde
- Edith Piaff
- Jim Morrison