Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 1, 2012 2:19PM

A lively, lovely necropolis

Rate: 25 Flag



People are often surprised when I suggest a cemetery as one of the things they should see in Paris.

Of course, Père Lachaise isn’t like most cemeteries.  Named for a Jesuit priest and confessor of Louis XIV who once owned the land, Père Lachaise opened in 1804 as a municipal burial ground for all Parisians, regardless of religion or profession.  In order to popularize the cemetery, which was located in a remote, poor area, the remains of several famous former Parisians, including Molière and tragic medieval lovers Abelard and Heloïse, were transferred here.  

 From the start, Père Lachaise was destined to be a beautiful place.  Over the years, famous architects, landscapers, artists, and sculptors designed – and continue to design – its layout, as well as the monuments, tombstones, and sepulchres that cover most of its 110 acres. 


In the early 19th century, Egyptian hieroglyphics were very à la mode, even though they hadn’t been deciphered yet.  Here, an Egyptian-style motif decorates the top of a French family's tombstone, making it stand out a bit among the other graves. 


 Lovely bronze maidens add bronze flowers to this pretty mid- to late-19th century tomb. 



 A statue inscribes the name and dates of birth and death onto the late 19th century tombstone of writer, philosophy teacher, and politican Auguste Burdeau.


Traditional tombs, probably from the early to mid-19th century, beside a tombstone designed by Art Nouveau master Hector Guimard, in the late 19th or early 20th century. 



A mid-20th century tomb. 




Old and new: two angels on the door of  an old sepulchre are starting to rust, while the pair below has just been installed onto another sepulchre.  


While many people come to the cemetery to visit a lost loved one, or pay homage to an admired bygone historical figure (there’s quite a lot of them here), others visit Père Lachaise for a beautiful stroll along its cobbled, tree-lined pathways.  




 Benches can be found among the gravestones, or high on its hillside.  In winter, when the trees are bare, you can look out over Paris and see the top of the distant Panthéon, where other famous people are entombed, as well as the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, signs of a more modern time.

Père Lachaise itself feels timeless, and yet, time’s effects can be easily seen here.  Inside its walls, stone monuments and sepulchres stand with a certain pride.  And yet, many are crumbling or being overtaken by moss.  Tombs and sepulchres are left to shift with the movements of tree roots and erosion, stained glass windows are broken.  Sepulchres' metal doors slowly rust and fall from their hinges, sometimes revealing a decaying prie-Dieu inside. 














It’s easy to contemplate how everything returns to the earth


A winged hourglass encircled with a funeral wreath decorates a rusty sepulchre door.  This symbol or a slight variation on it, can be found throughout the cemetery.  


– and then you turn around and see two giggling teenagers gossiping and sending text messages on their smartphones on a bench  nearby, and you return to life. 



Some of this decay isn’t merely the work of time; Père Lachaise has its own criminal population, presently ranging from squatters, to vandals, to thieves.  There are security guards, but the density of the tombs, and the size of the cemetery make it impossible to keep an eye on everything.  Once, I was walking here with some friends, when we heard the bells that the guards ring to announce the cemetery is closing.  We hurried to one of the gates, but were too late – it had already been locked shut.  Luckily, we spotted a guard and he let us out.  But if it’s difficult to see a small group, the guards aren’t likely to spot someone deliberately hiding, waiting for night to fall. 



Many people blame Doors singer Jim Morrison for all of this – since his burial here in 1971, his gravesite has brought such unforeseen problems as fans getting drunk and high by his tombstone, empty beer cans and other garbage-like homages left behind, and even graffiti on some of the nearby stones. 


A group of tourists gathers around Jim Morrison’s tombstone. 


But I imagine that there would probably be at least some problems in Père Lachaise, anyway.  As long as people are looking for unusual antique religious art and sculptures, there will be thieves.  And there is a part of me that understands not wanting to leave the allure of this place, to fold oneself into a corner of a sepulchre and stay, and see what happens here under the moonlight.






 With many of the cemetery’s stone sepulchres in a bad state of repair, it’s strange to see this one made of glass, entirely intact.


There is a strange mixture of life and death here.  Cemetery tour groups wend their way through wide avenues and tiny cobbled paths barely traced in the soil between tombs, laughing and chattering, while nearby, someone puts fresh flowers on the grave of a recently departed loved one.  New mothers push prams past the crematorium, with its multi-storey wings of columbaria, whose walls are spotted with plaque-covered niches for urns. 


This contemporary family tomb features a bas-relief sculpture of a couple and a dog.  Animals aren’t supposed to be buried in Père Lachaise, but it made me wonder if perhaps an exception was made here, or if the dog’s ashes were placed with the couple. Or maybe the dog is simply used as an allegory for loyalty.  Whatever the answer, I found the image and its association with the word “family”, very touching. 


Père Lachaise is otherworldly – and also, very cosmopolitan.  All this stone amid the trees gives the place the appearance of a small city.  Sepulchres look like narrow houses; enormous monuments look like municipal buildings and churches or temples.


There are even street signs: the cemetery's large avenues and smaller pathways have been carefully named and marked.


Like any city, the population is diverse: Centuries-old tombstones inscribed with French names stand beside a recent stone carved with Chinese characters.  Pebbles are left lovingly on the top of a Jewish tomb, in the shadow of the stone cross of its neighbor.  If only more people could co-exist this peacefully in life.  



Still, there are also reminders of dissention –


  The tomb of journalist, politician, and Franco-Prussian War hero Anatole de la Forge, is topped by a dramatic life-sized statue of the man leading troops into battle.

-- monuments to those who died in wars, or those who were deported to concentration camps during World War II.  Père Lachaise was itself the site of a sad human conflict.  In 1871, France experienced its own Civil War, with Communards, Parisian proto-Communist revolutionaries, fighting the Versaillais, the conservative government.  The fighting came to a head on May 22-29, a week that came to be called la Semaine Sanglante (“Bloody Week”), when the Versaillais managed to invade Paris, which was under the Communards’ control.  The last great battle was fought among the headstones of Père Lachaise.  When it was over, the 147 Communards who had survived, were lined up against one of the cemetery walls, and executed.  This wall, knows as the Mur des Fédérés, is a pilgrimage site for those who are still inspired by the Commune and what it stood for.  Every year in May, a memorial is held here.  The original stones of the wall have been replaced, and while their current location is disputed, many agree they’ve been incorporated into the sculpture Le Monument aux Fédérés, located in the Square Samuel Champlain, a park just outside the cemetery’s western wall.

It’s hard to imagine such a place as a battleground now.  Today, Père Lachaise is suffused with a feeling of peace.  The graves seem to wait to tell you the stories of those buried here – but quietly, though there are many here who died violent deaths.  One tomb that captures this contrast perfectly is the rather extraordinary gave of Théodore Sivel and Joseph Crocé-Spinelli, 19th century aeronauts who succumbed to altitude sickness and crashed their balloon, Le Zénith, while successfully attempting to break an ascension record. The departed aviation pioneers lie captured in bronze, naked beneath their shrouds, their expressions and postures suggesting at once the result of a brutal fall, and the repose of death.



 Like any city, there are celebrities in this necropolis, but you may never end up running into them. 


Théodore Géricault’s bronze figure lounges on top of his tomb, looking relaxed and ready to paint more masterpieces like Le radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa), which is represented just below him.  

If there’s a grave you’d like to visit here, a map is probably necessary.  You’ll be able to find one at just about any shop or newsstand near the cemetery.  But you don’t need a map to enjoy Père Lachaise.  It’s marvelous to come here and just get lost.  You’re bound to see some curious, beautiful, and surprising things. 


There are many different sculpted animals in the cemetery, like this turtle, one of four bearing a small pyramid. 

One of my favorite discoveries is an overgrown tomb, whose bronze sculpture of clasped hands says so much.


A Halloween visit to Père Lachaise may seem like a good idea.  Not only are its tombs picturesque; members of a resident murder of crows will often perch dramatically on top of them.  



But in spite of this, I doubt anyone could find Père Lachaise particularly spooky.  The dead do seem to call out and speak to you, but in a calm sort of way.  “Here’s my name”, they say through stone, “here’s my story.”  La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day), the day after Halloween, seems like a much more fitting holiday for Père Lachaise. 



The angel on this sepulchre’s door appears determined to guard her family’s final resting place. 
 The angels on the door of this mid- to late- 20th century sepulchre, are bathed in a holy-seeming light.

Families will visit their loved ones’ graves.  Remembrance will be in the air more than ever.  As always, here the living will mingle with the dead. 





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I don't know why Ms. Stim and I haven't made it to Père Lachaise. We like exploring historic cemeteries. We did wander around Cimetière de Montparnasse in a futile effort to find Beckett's grave stone. Thanks for a lovely tour.
A perfect post for All Saints Day.

BTW, I put stones on everyone's graves. I like the way they stay there until someone or something moves them.
It is wonderful to find a fellow cemeterian! This is so fabulous! I have not been to Pere Lachaise in a very long time, but I love it. And you know how much I love to read tombstones and photograph graves and mausoleums. You presented a great tour here. /R
Wonderful post and great time to put it up.

I loved this place...and it also is one of the places I got lost in. Nobody who goes to Paris should miss it - I'm looking at you, Stim.
With Día de los Muertos here this weekend, your timing was perfect with this piece. Of course I enjoyed the photos immensely.
With Día de los Muertos here this weekend, your timing was perfect with this piece. Of course I enjoyed the photos immensely.
Very nice tour and history. I find cemeteries very tranquil. This one looks a little overwhelming in its size and closeness.

A tour of a Parisian cemetery on Día de los Muertos... how strangely appropriate... R&R ;-)
A beautiful and evocative place to visit, especially on All Saints Day. Thank you for all those gorgeous pictures. Tell that poor little turtle it has my sympathy!
I love cemeteries and the pictures here were out of this world.. I was told upon some visits to such hallowed places that cows were there to protect the dead.
I so agree.
Fantastique ma cher
merde... you can tell my mind is not 100%.. That would not be a bunch of vaches/cows that should read CROWS.:)
Love love love this post! And I would love to have you as a tour guide in parisian cemetaries...
Love love love this post! And I would love to have you as a tour guide in parisian cemetaries...
I would love to take that walk. You're pictures are captivating and it's clear that they give just a hint of the stories to be found there. There's an old cemetery in St. Louis that that has benches and places for picnics and which, years ago, was very much used as a park. I rather like that way of being remembered.
Wonderful job, Alysa! A great tour of a great place.
The Cuban in me is terrified of resting places. V. different culture.
No, not spooky at all, to an Edgar Allen Poe fanatic.
I wonder how Moliere & Morrison get along.
After all, Moliere said
"Le scandale du monde est ce qui fait l'offense,
Et ce n'est pas pécher que pécher en silence.
To create a public scandal is what's wicked;
To sin in private is not a sin."
Ah they got their privacy now.
As M. said,
"On ne meurt qu'une fois; et c'est pour si longtemps!
We die only once, and for such a long time!"
All you cemetery gals & guys visiting
are probably a nuisance sometimes , though I'm sure you,
Alysa, were a delight for our friend Moliere:

Une femme d'esprit est un diable en intrigue.
A witty woman is a devil at intrigue.
What a wonderful photo essay, one of the best I have ever seen here. You make the case for Père Lachaise as a world class repository of iconoclastic funerary art, with the emphasis on iconoclastic. And it's so much more than Jim Morrison (not to knock him). Lachaise is now firmly lodged on my To-Do list. Thank you.
These fabulous photos unfortunately gave me a flashback to the LSD-fueld cemetery scene in Easy Rider. Fortunately the crow atop one tombs brought me back to reality in time to keep the kids in the English class I'm subbing for from calling 911 on their ubiquitous smartass phones. Thanks for filling me in on yet another Paris attraction I missed in my two visits to your magical city.
Sorry for the typos. It's been a long day with the younger generation.
Sorry for the typos. It's been a long day with the younger generation.
While this Great Post downloads I will feed my Meter a Bail of Hay. I traveled throughout WEstern Europe etc., for seven months post-War.
I Remember Pondering Life in Beautiful Graveyards. I Nod Aye, Blogger`
another steve s
On stone in a graveyard
Here lie Mr Pea Pod.
Pod is Not with God.
Pod is under the Sod.
Pea Not Here. O God.
Pea died and see God.

Pea/Pod or God/Peas.
No Pee on Grave\Sods.
Ay I gotta Go Pea/Later.
This is a Keeper for God.
We spent an afternoon at Pere Lachaise, and like you said, it's like a mini-city. We saw the Morrsion grave - mobbed, of course - but also the Chopin and Oscar Wilde (no mobs there). It took us forever to get there - I think we had to change Metro lines three times - but it was well worth the visit.
I made sure to see Chopin's grave when I was there. But the place was so immense that we couldn't find all that we wanted to see. (And then another day we ended up in another cemetery and found Serge Gainsbourg's grave, complete with packs of Gitanes from adoring fans.)

Terrific post and photos!
Thank you for this rather interesting tour; and congratulations on the EP and Cover.
When I was growing up in New York my friends and I would sneak into an old cemetery and try to find the oldest person buried there. I once found a tombstone with an 1858 date on it.
This is an enchanting and captivating account, in both words and photos, that really drew me in. Thank you for this, but now I feel I have actually experienced being there and can cross Pere Lachaise off my bucket list. Congratulations on the EP, well- deserved.
A fun and fascinating post, beautifully rendered in your photos and thoughtful, charming words. This jumbled cemetery does look like a city, a city of peace, which should remind us to learn to live in peace.
Completely interesting and wonderful. I very much enjoyed this although not all pictures loaded for me.
Gorgeous! I've never been inside Père Lachaise, but I love the old cemeteries in New Orleans (and other towns in south Louisiana, too.)
Thank you so much for this post. I have never had the chance to see Pere Lachaise, but was not too sorry because I've always been a little afraid of cemeteries. Next time I'm in Paris, it will be first on the list, no matter what family obligations we have. I look forward to each and every post you make. You have such a gift for description, and incredible sensitivity. You and I are separated by 45 years, but you speak to everyone. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this post. I have never had the chance to see Pere Lachaise, but was not too sorry because I've always been a little afraid of cemeteries. Next time I'm in Paris, it will be first on the list, no matter what family obligations we have. I look forward to each and every post you make. You have such a gift for description, and incredible sensitivity. You and I are separated by 45 years, but you speak to everyone. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this post. I have never had the chance to see Pere Lachaise, but was not too sorry because I've always been a little afraid of cemeteries. Next time I'm in Paris, it will be first on the list, no matter what family obligations we have. I look forward to each and every post you make. You have such a gift for description, and incredible sensitivity. You and I are separated by 45 years, but you speak to everyone. Thank you.
This is gorgeous, evocative. Excellent post, Alysa.
the zentralfriedhof in vienna would also be worth a visit.
Thank you so much for taking this walk through Père Lachaise with me, you guys! I'm sorry that I wasn't able to reply to comments, and that I can't do so, now. Life has taken a busy turn these past few weeks - in some very good ways, but also in some bad ways. Your words and comments and presence, is a huge comfort. I really appreciate your reading, and hope that I'll be able to read your posts, and respond better to comments on my own, soon.
Promise me the cemetery tour when I come!
Promise me the cemetery tour when I come! I"ll provide the cocktails:)
Oh how I always enjoyed myself in that Cemetery. Thanks for sharing it again with us here.
Competitor for my favorite spot in Paris, along with the Galeries Lafayette Haussman and the Sainte-Chappelle. Not entirely sure what those choices say about me, but, either way, totally down with your evocation of the place as a living, dynamic museum of the city.