Père Lachaise Cemetery is the largest cemetery in the city of Paris, France (110 acres), though there are larger cemeteries in the city’s suburbs. One thing you very quickly get to know is that Père Lachaise is built on a hill. Both the entrance shown above (designed by Etienne-Hippolyte Godde) and the goulish subway stop to the right are at the bottom of the hill, requiring you to go up the hill to view the graves. A much better idea is to get off the subway at Gambetta, at the top of the hill. Also, they are usually out of maps at the cemetery and you will be utterly lost without one (you may also find it difficult to find your way out). Instead, either bring a map or buy some flowers at one of the local florists and ask for a map. An even better idea is to spend $2.99 on the app, Père Lachaise for your IPhone or IPad, a wonderful app that helps you pinpoint a specific grave or all the graves in your general location along with a small explanation of who the person is.
The cemetery takes its name from the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in the Jesuit house rebuilt in 1682 on the site of the chapel. The property, situated on the hillside from which the king during the Fronde, watched skirmishing between the Condé and Turenne, was bought by the city in 1804. Established by Napoleon in this year, the cemetery was laid out by Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, and later extended.
Père Lachaise Cemetery was opened on 21 May 1804. The first person buried there was a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Pailliard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a doorman of the Faubourg St. Antoine whose tomb is long lost. Napoleon Bonaparte as a consul declared that “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”.
At the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804, with great fanfare, organised the transfer of the remains of La Fontaine and Molière. Then, in another great spectacle in 1817, the purported remains of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse were also transferred to the cemetery with their monument’s canopy made from fragments of the abbey of Nogent-sur-Seine, seen to the right. By tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love. Now a cast iron fence surrounds the tomb.
The story is actually quite sad and happened a long time ago, about 1115. Heloise lived with her uncle Fulbert. She was remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. Abélard sought a place in Fulbert’s house, and then seduced Héloïse. The affair interfered with his career, and Abélard himself boasted of his conquest. Once Fulbert found out, he separated them, but they continued to meet in secret. Héloïse became pregnant and was sent by Abélard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son whom she named Astrolabe after the scientific instrument.
To appease Fulbert, Abélard proposed a secret marriage in order not to mar his career prospects. Héloïse initially opposed it, but the couple were married. When Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, and Héloïse denied it, she went to the convent of Argenteuil at Abélard’s urging. Fulbert, believing that Abélard wanted to be rid of Héloïse, had him castrated, effectively ending Abélard’s romantic career and convincing him to become a monk. Héloïse was forced to become a nun.
When you walk in the top you are first confronted with manicured lawns and memorials to WWI. You can see the columbarium in the upper right.
Some examples of the WWI memorials are seen above. The top is gratitude to Czechoslovakia, bottom left Russia and bottom right Poland for casualties taken in support of France in WWI.
Within the U-Shaped columbarium (place where the ashes are placed) is a pretty chapel which was being used on the day of our visit for a funeral. The funerary chapel was erected in 1823 by Etienne-Hippolyte Godde at the exact place of the ancient Jesuit house. This same Neoclassical architect created the monumental entrance a few years later.
A columbarium and a crematorium of a Neo-Byzantine style were designed in 1894 by Jean Camille Formigé which is seen behind the chapel.
If you go to the left you will see many monuments to the concentration camps of WWII. This subject is too serious and too lengthy to include here, I will devote a separate post to this sad chapter in history.
Just inside you come upon the grave of Oscar Wilde, just as flamboyant in death as he was in life. The grave has had to be surrounded by plexiglass because of graffiti and lipstick kisses which you can see above.
Around the corner is the grave of Gertrude Stein and on the back side of the tombstone is her lover, Alice B Toklas (of the brownie recipe fame).
Paul Eluard (1895-1952) is one of my favorite poets. He was one of the founders of the surrealist movement with Louis Aragon and André Breton among others and one of the important lyrical poets of the 20th century.
Nearby was Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) who was a French poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and art critic born in Italy to a Polish mother. Among the foremost poets of the early 20th century, he is credited with coining the word Surrealism and writing one of the earliest works described as surrealist, the play The Breasts of Tiresias. He was one of the most most popular members of the artistic community of Montparnasse in Paris. Shortly after his death, Calligrammes, a collection of his concrete poetry (poetry in which typography and layout adds to the overall effect as seen to the right) was published. One of his quotes, “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy”.
During this period he coined the word surrealism in the program notes for Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie’s ballet Parade, first performed on 18 May 1917. He also published an artistic manifesto, L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes. Apollinaire’s status as a literary critic is most famous and influential in his recognition of the Marquis de Sade, whose works were for a long time obscure, yet arising in popularity as an influence upon the Dada and Surrealist art movements going on in Montparnasse at the beginning of the twentieth century as, “The freest spirit that ever existed.”
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is buried here, best known for his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past). It was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.
Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter and Sculptor who became known for paintings and sculptures in a modern style characterized by mask-like faces and elongation of form. In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, then the focal point of the avant-garde. He settled in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists in Montmartre, renting himself a studio in Rue Caulaincourt. He was first influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but around 1907 he became fascinated with the work of Paul Cézanne. Eventually he developed his own unique style, one that cannot be adequately categorized with those of other artists.
La Fontaine and Molière were moved here in 1804, and are surrounded by the same iron fence as Pierre Abélard and Héloïse. Molière is considered by some to be the French equivalent of Shakespeare and is considered by most to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature.
Sarah Bernhardt is here needing no real introduction
As is Bertillon, the father of forensic investigation.
Chopin (1810-1849) is here, considered one of the great masters of Romantic music.
Finally Jim Morrison of the Doors is buried here, probably one of the most visited graves in the cemetery.
Beyond the famous people, the cemetary is packed with unexpected little buildings, like the one above for Prince Henry de La Tour D’Auvergne Lauraguais, part of the Rothschild dynasty.
And so many shady lanes packed with graves, you quickly become lost.
Over a million people have been buried here in the last 200 years, and the graves are tightly packed together. Many are family graves, and when another family member dies, the bones are disinterred and cremated.
There is a nice little park at the top of the hill, overlooking Paris and even the Eiffel tower in the distance where many people take a rest and have a picnic lunch.
Well, it has been another long post, but it was a big place, as always, hope you enjoyed.