This week Flickering Lamps is taking a break from the hidden, not so well known sites that often grace this site to explore probably the most famous cemetery in the world: Paris’ Père Lachaise. Opened as the world’s first garden cemetery in 1804, Père Lachaise (or to give its original name, cimetière de l’Est – East Cemetery) was the inspiration for many other grand Victorian garden cemeteries, both in Europe and across the Atlantic in the Americas. Situated on the edge of the city, Père Lachaise was opened to provide a dignified burial space for all of Paris’ citizens. Around a million people have been laid to rest there since it opened in 1804, and today, around two million people visit the cemetery every year.
I explored Père Lachaise with a friend on a sunny Sunday morning at the end of March. It was quite early in the day, but many other visitors were already there, exploring the vast streets of tombs. Like many other visitors to the cemetery, we began our visit at the gates closest to the Gambetta metro station, one stop further along from Père Lachaise. This is a popular choice for visitors as part of Père Lachaise is on a steep hillside, and entering from the Gambetta entrance means that the visitor can move downhill through the cemetery rather than uphill.
The cemetery gets its name from the owner of a house previously situated on the site, which was owned by the confessor to King Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise, a Jesuit priest. His home was built on the site of an earlier chapel, but after the suppression of the Jesuit order in France in the mid-18th Century, the property was purchased by the city authorities and the house demolished, with the land it had been situated on later being laid out as a cemetery. Paris’ urban churchyards and burial grounds had been closed to new burials in the late 18th Century due to terrible overcrowding, and Père Lachaise was the first of the new, more spacious cemeteries to officially open on the edge of the city in 1804. Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned the respected architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart to design the cemetery’s layout – Napoleon was pleased enough with Brongniart’s design that he commissioned him to build a new stock exchange in Paris.
It is hard to imagine today, when visiting this vast cemetery with its multitude of famous and ornate tombs, that when it first opened it was not a success at all. In its first year, 1804, only thirteen burials took place at Père Lachaise. This was due to its distance from the city, and also due to the fact that the burial ground was unconsecrated, making it unattractive to the many Catholics living in Paris. However, a public relations campaign of sorts was launched to improve the cemetery’s image, and the remains of some long-dead French heroes, including the playwright Molière and poet Jean de la Fontaine, were moved to the site to encourage others to follow. The bones of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil were also moved to Père Lachaise, with a grand memorial being unveiled above their new place of rest in 1817. The doomed love affair between Abélard and Héloïse is well-known in France – they lived during the 12th Century, and when their secret relationship was discovered, Abélard was attacked and castrated and Héloïse sent to live in a convent. Despite their separation, and the mutilation suffered by Abélard, the couple remained in correspondence with each other and the surviving letters that they exchanged during the remainder of their lives have been widely studied and translated over the years.
Père Lachaise has always been a municipal cemetery – that is, owned and operated by the city of Paris, rather than by a private company. After the cemetery’s initial struggles to attract burials, Père Lachaise began to become more popular and by 1850 the site had to be extended to accommodate more graves. It is still possible to be buried at Père Lachaise today, but due to the cemetery’s fame only those who die in Paris are eligible to be buried there, and even with that condition there is a waiting list for burials.
Having visited a good number of 19th Century cemeteries over the years, the layout of Père Lachaise came as no surprise to me: avenues lined with tombs and memorials, some broad and sweeping, others narrow and shadowy. Similar to the cemetery at Montmartre, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, the most common type of grave marker at Père Lachaise is the tall, narrow, phone-box style tomb with a gate on the front and space inside – a private chapel of sorts – for mourners to leave flowers, wreaths and other objects.
Not far from the entrance near Gambetta Metro station is one of the most-visited and most well known of Père Lachaise’s graves: that of Oscar Wilde. Wilde, the celebrated man of letters who lived for most of his life in London, spent his final years in Paris after his infamous trial and imprisonment for gross indecency. He died destitute in Paris in 1900, and he was originally buried not at Père Lachaise but at Cimetière de Bagneux, outside of the city. In 1909, he was reinterred at Père Lachaise beneath the magnificent tomb we see today, which was designed by Jacob Epstein. An excerpt from Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, inspired by his time in prison, is carved on the back of the memorial as an epitaph:
And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
Over the years, a tradition has developed where visitors kiss Oscar’s grave whilst wearing lipstick – sadly, this practice was causing so much damage to the monument that it is now screened off with perspex, which takes away from the impact of the memorial a bit, but it is understandable that Wilde’s family, who are responsible for the upkeep of the monument, wish to protect it for future generations.
It’s not often that you come across a grave surrounded by people who are giggling and smiling, but the grave of Victor Noir has the unusual reputation of being Père Lachaise’s sexiest memorial. Victor Noir, whose real name was Yvan Salmon, was killed in a duel in 1870, allegedly a day before he was due to be married. His death at the hands of Prince Pierre Bonaparte made him a hero to those who opposed the regime of Napoleon III, the cousin of Noir’s killer, and thousands attended his funeral. The elegant bronze effigy that marks his grave is detailed and lifelike, and over the years M. Noir has become more famous not for the manner of his death but for the anatomical detail on his effigy. The rather distinctive bulge in his crotch area has become something of a fertility symbol, with female visitors touching his crotch and lips – these areas have become rubbed and shiny, in contrast with the verdigris finish on the rest of the effigy – in the hope of finding a husband. For a time, the grave was fenced off to prevent “lewd acts” being performed on the grave, but this was removed after protests.
Another grave which has attracted some sometimes-damaging devotion from visitors is that of Jim Morrison, frontman of The Doors, who died of a drug overdose in Paris in 1971. The modest headstone over Morrison’s grave today is not the first grave marker to exist at the site. For a few years the grave was unmarked, but a small plaque was later added to the site. After this was stolen, a bust of Morrison was placed on the grave to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death, but this too was defaced and later stolen. The simple headstone that now marks Morrison’s grave was laid there by his family. Like the graves of Oscar Wilde and Victor Noir, Jim Morrison’s grave was surrounded by people when I visited it. It is nestled among a number of older graves, but it is impossible to miss due to the colourful tributes left there and the fences that have been put in place to prevent any vandalism or antisocial behaviour at the site.
There is a large crematorium at the heart of the cemetery, which opened in 1894 in response to the growing demand for cremation as an alternative to burial. This impressive neo-Byzantine building is surrounded by a large columbarium, built at the same time as the crematorium, where urns containing ashes are placed in little niches and then sealed.
The Monument aux Morts – Monument to the Dead – is an impressive monument created by Albert Bartholomé and unveiled in 1899. Mourning figures, all beautifully carved, flank an Egyptian-style doorway. There is an inscription on the monument – Sur ceux qui habitaient le pays de l’ombre de la mort, une lumière resplendit – which is taken from the book of Isaiah and can be translated into English as “they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
This wonderful monument is, in fact, an ossuary – a house of bones. When a grave site is not purchased in perpetuity, the site may later be reused for other burials, and when this happens the bones are exhumed and placed in the ossuary. The ossuary Aux Morts is home to remains from old abandoned graves not just from Père Lachaise but other cemeteries in Paris as well.
Père Lachaise is so vast, and its famous and notable monuments so numerous, that this article has only really scratched the surface of the many interesting graves and memorials to see there. As it was, I spent quite a few hours exploring the cemetery and took hundreds of photographs (far more than I can possibly share in one blog post), but I certainly didn’t see everything and, like the larger cemeteries in London, Père Lachaise is definitely one of those places that can be visited many times, with new discoveries to be made on each visit.
More information about visiting Père Lachaise can be found here.
References and further reading
Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe – The Cemetery of Père Lachaise http://www.significantcemeteries.org/2011/11/cemetery-of-pere-lachaise-paris-france.html
Encyclopedia Brittanica – Père Lachaise Cemetery http://www.britannica.com/place/Pere-Lachaise-Cemetery
Erotic erosion: the recumbent effigy of Victor Noir – Atlas Obscura http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/erotic-erosion-recumbent-effigy-victor-noir
Paris Cemeteries – Questions http://www.pariscemeteries.com/questions-1/