The Pére LaChaise Cemetery: Paris Museum Al Fresco – Paris, France

The Pére LaChaise Cemetery: Paris Museum Al Fresco
Paris, France

Our guide could well have been a map to thhomes of the Hollywood stars; our intention, to walk about for an hour or so and visit a few departed icons. Six hours later, and having abandoned the map (the inaccuracies and vagaries of the marked spots would have set a pirate’s teeth on edge) we realized that we had effortlessly passed an entire day in la Cimitière de Pére Lachaise, Paris’ premiere cemetery – indeed, the world’s most visited graveyard.

Its namesake, a 17th century Jesuit priest and confessor to Louis XIV, was Father François de la Chaise d’Aix, who had lived on what would become the cemetery’s grounds. The property was well outside the city’s precincts and over time, would change hands, see the Jesuits evicted and significantly increase in size. In a savvy real estate deal instigated by Napoleon, the land was purchased in 1803 to relieve the city of its funereal woes. Paris at that time was plagued by exceptionally unpleasant odours: its burial grounds, mostly in urban churchyards, were literally swollen to bursting, the sanitation was substandard (its inadequate sewers were only marginally effective if it rained) and the area near the gallows was also used as the city dump. Everything from household refuse and excrement to the bodies of the hanged (city officials hoped that the stench of the rotting criminals would act as a deterrent to crime) were tossed together for a truly malodorous mélange.

Death Watches Over Her
Death Watches Over Her
The response to the new cemetery was less than enthusiastic; Parisians were not particularly keen to walk in funeral cortèges from the city-centre to the boondocks. By 1807, there were scant more than a hundred permanent residents and the cemetery’s investors were gnawing at their fingernails as they watched bodies pile up “downtown”. Napoleon launched a large-scale publicity campaign and gentrified the cemetery with a few well-chosen post-mortem invitations. The remains of medieval Paris’ star-crossed lovers Abélard and Héloïse, as well as literary giants Molière and Fontaine were relocated to the new cemetery. This, combined with the popularity of a series of weekly novels by Balzac (who chose the site as the final resting place for many of his fictional characters), saw a rise in the cemetery’s appeal among literary tourists and the about-to-be-dead.

After six extensions and the erection of some 100,000 tombs (because of the old custom of utilizing mass graves, there are actually over one million interred) the cemetery has become the place to be seen if you’re dead. Its original urban planner even sold a burial plot to the site’s previous owner for several times more than he had paid for the entire piece of real estate. As more and more Parisians continue to require a little patch of eternity to call their own, the government adopted a rigorous campaign of “move it or lose it”; sites that aren’t maintained are usurped for new paying tenants. To combat this, impending grieving families will often hire professional mourners to keep grandma’s name (and grave) fresh and alive. Now 30-year leases are sold so that a failure to renew one’s lease is tantamount to an eviction notice.

Walking through the main gate at Boulevard de Menilmontant, we are overwhelmed with the fact that in Paris’ Triple Crown of graveyards (there are also the Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries) Pére Lachaise is indeed the Kentucky Derby. Because the cemetery has no churchly affiliations, the rich were able to do what they do best: indulge in conspicuous displays of ostentation. It is a microcosm of Paris, a city of the dead which mirrors that of the living, where many of its tombs reflect the life and sometimes the manner of death of their namesakes. Like the real world, it has had its share of sexual scandal. The unveiling of Oscar Wilde’s grave with its generously proportioned manhood raised many an eyebrow in polite society; the offending genitalia were eventually hacked off and used as a paperweight by a cemetery director until they went astray. The “family jewels” of the life-size statue of Victor Noir (the 19th century journalist assassinated by Napoleon III’s cousin) are so pronounced even under his trousers that they have become a fertility fetish of sorts and are now highly polished through years of hopeful rubbings. The remains of Yves Montand were torn from the side of his wife Simone Signoret for DNA testing in a paternity suit. Vindicated, he has been returned to the family fold.

With our map virtually discarded, we meander through the cemetery: the ground is cobbled and serpentine, jagged, raised as upon terraces; the graves sit like vacation homes on an outcrop in the Mediterranean. In real estate terms, this well-treed 110-acre lot in an established downtown neighbourhood has been further subdivided into 97 divisions of simple unadorned headstones, private phone booth-like chapels, monolithic monuments and grand mausoleums. We keep a wary eye for the names on our hit list, strolling haphazardly in awestruck splendour. We stumble across the cemetery’s ubiquitous tomcats as well as its who’s-who: Paris’ little sparrow, Edith Piaf, Modigliani, Sarah Bernhardt, Seurat, Pissaro, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Gustave Doré – the list goes on and on, and we are dizzy with celebrity. We are enthralled by the tombs of those who have special meaning to us, those who should have special meaning to us and equally by those who are completely unknown to us; our minds are impressed with a days’ worth of images, a mosaic of contributions to our collective cultural development and to human history. My mind flashes with slivers of these individual coloured tiles:

A small bottle of red wine perches next to the potted tuberoses on Jim Morrison’s somewhat denuded grave. We feel obliged to pay our respects but feel only incredulity at the apparent continued increase in his cult status. The simple gravestone bears an inscription in Greek which, depending whether you are of a classical predisposition or modern, reads: “to the divine spirit within him” or “he caused his own demons”. The site is littered with cellophaned flowers – a guard (on duty since the grave was vandalized by neo-Nazis) watches us closely but says nothing, as it is evident that we are not there to add our own graffiti or to engage in illicit coupling under the gaze of the Lizard King (although, his bust is now long gone).

A young woman in bronze arrests us; she is a Demeter figure. The shoulders of her copper-hued body are downy with sage-green moss; she demurely raises the hem of her dress and offers underhand, limply, ears of real wheat that some anonymous benefactor changes frequently.

We see the small grave of jazz musician Michel Petrucciani. Before its simple name plaque is a bouquet of two-dozen baby roses amid several potted miniature evergreens – is everything undersized to echo Petrucciani’s diminutive stature?

The artist Géricault poses languidly atop his massive grave propped on a marble pillow, holding his palette and pointing, no � challenging you with his clutch of brushes. A copy of his signature piece, “The Raft of the Medusa” is cast in bronze beneath him. In it he posited that the only truth is suffering. He died at 33.

We are more moved by the grave of Chopin, vying with Morrison for the attention of his fans. The step leading up to his grave has become an altar, a riot of colours, a florist’s best showing of cyclamens, kalanchoes, astilbes and marigolds – a candle is lit and leans precariously against a plastic cup amidst the vibrant reds and yellows of the grave offerings. His muse sits atop the grave; her body is heavy with grief, her head bowed, holding with little conviction her lyre, her right hand is listless and loose, a blood red rose petal rests lightly on her small foot. She is in mourning.

A stylized child: a reduction of face and praying hands. Her form is reduced to a suggestion, (reminiscent of an Egyptian stylized scribe statue) and looks with vacant eyes towards heaven, her lack of colour, her pallour is punctuated by the fuchsia of the bloodleaf bush, its leaves reaching skyward.

Abject anguish: a statue of such realism, gripped in absolute paroxysms of grief that only her elevated height belies her stony medium; her lifelike hands are sheathed in intricate lace and she wears a mantilla-like headdress that the living would envy. I want to weep for her.

Modern horror has found expression here. Holocaust victims reach for the freedom of the heavens through the bronze flames of a man-made hell. The Mur des Fédérés still stands, the wall against which on May 28, 1871, 147 Leftist Communards were executed after a final resistance in the cemetery the night before. They were buried where they fell. Salt to their wounds: the officer who ordered the dawn shooting was buried in Pére Lachaise a few years later. We walk on and read “In memory of all the Spaniards who died for our freedom 1939 – 1945” and “10,000 dead and deported, 25,000 killed with the Resistance”. I reel; feel sick as I walk past the monuments to young people who died in wartime. These graves have shaken me unexpectedly and profoundly.

A bronze pelican – as big as me – watches us with a quick round eye, its massive wings on the verge of unfurling. Why a pelican?

Aux Manes
Aux Manes
A Roman woman leans against a tombstone, her expression not so much of grief but of weariness – the stone reads “Aux Manes” – to the manes, the family spirits of the departed revered in ancient Rome; the extensive drapery of her costume has embraced the tombstone, an umbilical cord, a lifeline between her and the deceased.

A small roman temple, carved with images of grave offerings sits almost hidden in greenery, competing with a jungle of calla lilies; a large palm frond arches defiantly over its pediment. Life encroaches, triumphs over death.

The tomb of Champollion, the whiz kid who discovered the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs is oddly out-Egyptianed by other residents of the cemetery. His simple obelisk is festooned with chrysanthemums and I am grateful that the pioneer of my graduate research is well remembered.

We stroll through the Columbarium, the mausoleum built in the 19th century, to visit those who are most modestly remembered. We are becoming spoiled by the opulence of the cemetery. As we climb stairs and descend into its basements, we are disappointed by the simplicity of grave markers for soprano Maria Callas, artist Max Ernst, dancer Isadora Duncan and author Richard Wright. We have become jaded.

Exhausted, we leave the cemetery, already planning our return. The exit takes us to a neighbourhood ablaze with flowers, a quartier of florists – a brief reminder that those left behind must make a living, that death too is an industry. We have walked up and down its labyrinthine avenues, become lost, shared silent moments, wept openly, giggled like children and snorted in frustration at the tombs we couldn’t find. It is a museum al fresco or perhaps, as they French might say, a museum sur l’herbe. We feel like we have passed a day in a pantheon of gods, we have stood among greatness and as tired as we are, are both too sensible to complain about our sore feet.

Pére Lachaise recently marked its 200th birthday and a walk through the cemetery confirms its dazzling guest list. It was a party to die for.

La Cimitière de Pére Lachaise: 16 rue du Repos, 20th Arrondissement
Hours of operation: 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily; admission is free.
Métro stations close by: Gambetta, Père-Lachaise and Alexandre-Dumas.
Maps showing the locations of famous graves can be obtained from local shops and tobacconists.
An excellent online guide for gravesites is: