Secretly I am glad that Pere Lachaise closes at sundown. During the day, the shady, tree-lined streets of the most elegant cemetery of Paris are peaceful; sunlight falls softly on Louvre-quality sculptures and filters through stained-glass windows. Birds flutter. A stray cat scurries by. Respectful onlookers consulting their maps make crunching noises through the fallen leaves. There is nothing amiss here.
This is the final resting-place for 100,000 departed souls. Some famous. Some infamous. I don’t think I would want to wander around Pere Lachaise after dark. I can imagine Chopin and Edith Piaf laughing under the chestnut trees while clinking ghostly goblets of French champagne. I know that Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde must engage in heated philosophical debates when the moon is yellow and full. I can almost hear the sorrowful windlike wail of Modigliani’s still grieving and suicidal lover, Jeanne. Of course, Jim Morrison would be slouched on some steep stone steps idly humming, Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.
I am sure it would be that way at night. Venturing through the imposing gates off the boulevard de Menilmontant one sunny fall morning, I find myself in what appears to be a grand city for the dead: the immense park like grounds are full of great monoliths, private chapels, ornate mausoleums, and priceless sculptures and statuary. The ashes of Isadora Duncan can be found here. Balzac, Moliere, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Colette and Karl Marx’s daughter are buried here. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret are buried together.
People come from all over the world to pay their respects. For me, the draw is Edith Piaf – her smoky voice echoing the woes of love and the summer I spent in Paris when I was young. The cemetery-city sits high on a wooded hill in the 20th arrondissement, on the northeastern edge of Paris. Covering 109 acres, with 6,000 trees, it is now considered the largest park in the city. Father Francois de La Chaise D’Aix – known as Pere De la Chaise and confessor to Louis XIV, owned the land in the 1600s.
In 1803, Napoleon bought the land and had it laid out as a new cemetery. Some of the first occupants were La Fontaine and Moliere whose remains were transferred in 1804. Soon the hoity-toity of Paris clamored to be buried here.
My first stop is Jim Morrison’s grave. Morrison, former lead singer of the Doors, died mysteriously in 1971 at age 27 of a heart attack in the bathtub while writing poetry, or so the Paris police said. The original bust of Morrison was stolen long ago and his tomb is sadly stark and forlorn. I look down and see cigarette butts, an empty beer bottle and one red candle. Many of the nearby mausoleums are smeared with the colorful graffiti of his fans. I find myself alone at Morrison’s grave, but am told that many of his fans have partied so hearty at this site, the cemetery hired full-time guards and put up a fence trying to keep things under control. The local press reports the management of Pere Lachaise would very much like to send Morrison’s remains home to the U.S.
Oscar Wilde’s monument is, well, wild. After being jailed for homosexuality, Wilde died of "drink" in Paris in 1900. The sculpted figure on his monument is a massive, winged angel-sphinx designed by American sculptor, Jacob Epstein. Over the years the sphinx’s rather impressive private parts mysteriously have been chiseled off. Adoring fans of the famed Irish poet and writer leave lipstick marks in various places on the smooth, gray granite.
Chopin’s grave is as lovely and lyrical as his music. A weeping muse sits on the top of the headstone. An arrangement of white and yellow mums with pink and red carnations, from the Chopin Society, cascade down the black iron fence. The Polish composer died of tuberculosis in 1849.
Marcel Proust’s grave is a spare, black marble box. Proust, a philosopher/writer who died in 1922, was known as a Jewish homosexual, asthmatic and semi-invalid. He died, as he liked to write, in the middle of the night. This day a single red rose lies on top of his simple headstone.
Several people who appear to be in a trance surround Alain Kardec’s tomb. Born in Lyon, Kardec was a spiritualist, a sort of mystic professor. He was fascinated by the world of magnetizing, sleep walkers and hypnosis. While his tomb looks intriguing, the group circling his grave puts me off. I don’t stop.
For some reason, Edith Piaf’s grave is hard to find. It is set back off the path a little; I finally locate it almost by accident. It is an elegant, simple black marble monument adorned with Christ on the cross – covered with long-stemmed roses, a heart fashioned of foil and a few faded handwritten notes held down by smooth stones. Piaf died of cancer in 1963 at the age of 47. I sit for a while under the trees and my mind drifts back to 1967. I remember that haunting voice. She had been gone for six years. Yet her music still filled the dark, smoky bars and bistros of that summer in Paris.
Leaving Piaf’s grave, I walk to the perimeter of the cemetery and wander left. It is here I find the darkest part of the park: the powerful Buchenwald Memorial features three skeletal figures commemorating the French who lost their lives in concentration camps during World War II. The rawness of the sculptures takes my breath away. I have spent the better part of the day in Pere Lachaise, and I still have not seen it all.
As daylight dwindles, there is a peacefulness that settles over the graveyard. When I start back toward the main gate, my footsteps echo loudly over the cobblestones, I seem to be alone. I pass lovely, well-tended mausoleums covered with fresh flowers. I pass rundown crypts where once-beautiful stained glass is now cracked and covered with cobwebs. It comes as a bit of a surprise that some of the graves in this still-active cemetery are well tended and others seem forlorn and forgotten.
Departing the main gate, I look back and find myself wondering: What is it about cemeteries that intrigues us and also gives us the creeps? What is it about a visit to the dead that connects us to the past and to eternity? Perhaps it is the Remembrance of Things Past, the title of Proust's 1913 masterpiece – which makes a day, spent wandering through Pere Lachaise a worthwhile and educational excursion.
Some of the most interesting, talented and creative people of the past two centuries are buried under the oak and almond trees. Still, I would not want to be in this grand city of the dead after sundown.
There are several ways of getting to the cemetery. If you take a taxi, I recommend writing Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise on a piece of paper and handing it to your taxi driver. My taxi from St. Germain des Pres cost about $12.00 U.S., one way. By metro, take line 2: Père Lachaise or Philippe August station. There is no admission charge.
Maps of the cemetery are available for a few euros in newsstands and flower shops along avenue Pere-Lachaise, or at the shop inside the main entrance on boulevard de Ménilmontant. There is a lot of ground to cover. Preparing in advance will save you time and may even prevent sore feet.
Check out the following websites, decide what graves you want to visit, and download a map of the cemetery.
6 November – 15 March
Monday – Friday 8:00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Saturday 8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Sundays and public holidays 9:00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
16 March – 5 November
Monday to Friday 8:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday 8.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.
Sundays and public holidays 9:00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.
Pat Walker is the founder of The Cultural Explorer