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.
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.
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.