WENDY’S WEEK SPRING TIME IN PARIS: PERE LACHAISE
By Wendy Hughes
Perhaps one of the oddest attractions of Paris must be the park and cemetery, Père Lachaise, situated in 44 hectares or 110 acres, in the 20th arrondissement (administrative area) of Paris, and should be on the ‘must see’ list of every tourist. With more than 3.5 million people visiting a year, it makes it the most visited cemetery in the world. No one can say for certain how many people are buried there exactly, but the estimate varies from 300,000 to 1,000,000 including a variety of famous figures from all walks of life. However this is not the place to visit if you have a mobility problem, so come prepared to take it slowly and allow yourself plenty of stops taking advantage of the seats dotted around the cemetery. Also do your research before coming, and pick up a map or book the 2-hour guided tour to make sure you don’t miss out the graves you wish to visit.
The cemetery can be found on Boulevard de Ménilmontant and the Paris Metro Station, Philippe Auguste on line 2 is next to the main entrance, whilst the station Pere Lachaise, on both lines 2 and 3, is just 500 metres away near a side entrance which is now closed to the public. However many tourists prefer to arrive at the Gambetta station on line 3, as it allows them to enter near the tomb of Oscar Wilde, a monument that was on my list, and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery.
The cemetery takes its name from King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, and comprises of a mixture of English park and a shrine to the dead. All funerary art styles are represented here, from gothic graves, to burial chambers to the bizarre and ancient mausoleums. It was opened on 21 May 1804. The first person buried there was a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a door bell-boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine. Sadly her grave no longer exists as the plot was only a temporary concession. Napoleon, who had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate three days earlier, had declared during the Consulate that ‘every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion, and at the time the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted very few funerals, with many Roman Catholics refusing to be buried in a place not blessed by the Church. In that first year the cemetery contained only 13 graves, until the administrators devised a marketing strategy and during 1804 they organized the transfer of the remains of French poet Jean de La Fontaine the French playwright and actor Moliere. The following year there were 44 burials, with 49 during 1806, 62 during 1807 and 833 during 1812. Then, in another great spectacle of 1817, the purported remains of Pierre and Heloise were transferred to the cemetery with their monument’s canopy made from fragments of the abbey of Nogent-sur-Seine and in keeping with tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles still leave letters at the crypt in tribute to the couple, or in hope of finding true love..
Today it is still an operating cemetery accepting new burials, but the rules to be buried in a Paris cemetery are rather strict. People may only be buried there if they die in the French capital city or if they lived there, and it is even more difficult now as there is a long waiting list. Many of the tombs are about the size and shape of a telephone booth with just enough space for a mourner to step inside, kneel and say a prayer, and leave some flowers.
On the green paths, visitors cross the burial places of famous men and women, such as Honoré de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Jean-François Champollion, Jean de La Fontaine, Molière, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jim Morrison, Alfred de Musset, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro and Oscar Wilde to name just a few. To tell you about all would fill a book or two, so I have picked out just one that interested me and will continue to tell you others next week.
Perhaps the sexiest memorial in the cemetery is that of Victor Noir, (1848-1870) the French journalist, shot dead by Prince Pierre Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon III. Noir was shot after getting caught in the middle of an argument between Bonaparte and Paschal Grousset, the editor of the newspaper Noir was working for at the time. Some twenty years after his death and after the collapse of the Second French Empire, sculptor Jules Dalou was commissioned and opted for a strikingly realistic portrayal. From the individual hairs on his head to the creases in his shoes, no detail was spared and with one standing out above the rest…a prominent bulge in his trousers, and he has become the symbol of fertility. The beautiful model that adorns the tomb, shows how he would have laid dead in the street in his finest suit with his hat fallen to the side. Legend informs us that if you want to find a beautiful lover you should kiss his lips and if you want to get pregnant touch his right foot, but it you want twins, touch his left foot.
Tradition also states that placing a flower in the upturned top hat after kissing the statue on the lips and rubbing its genital area will enhance fertility and bring a blissful sex life. As a result of these legends the grey-green oxidized bronze statue looks rather well-worn and shiny. To try and deter people from touching the statute in 2004 a fence was erected around Noir but due to protests from the ‘female population of Paris’, led by French TV host Pere Cochin, it was torn down again.
Next week I will continue my journey around Pere Lachaise in the hope that I can whet your appetite to visit.