I trudged on foot to Pere Lachaise cemetery, from the direction of the Place de la Republique, first negotiating a street protest and then what seemed like 8.2 million cars and scooters. Eventually I made it across to the Avenue de la Republique and got into an assured stride. It was an early autumn morning and the boulevard was reasonably quiet. I had read somewhere (probably in a Jim Morrison biography) that the cemetery was huge and I became worried I would be gasping for tea later in the day, so I nipped into a lovely patisserie close to my destination. I'm convinced it was the same place I later saw in a film named 'Paris' starring Juliette Binoche. The main character in the film has an apartment overlooking the cemetery, so maybe I am right.
I knew I had reached Pere Lachaise because I saw two drunk tramps hanging about near a portaloo. Beyond them stood the grey walls of this mournful citadel. I entered through what I took to be the main gate on Boulevard Menilmontant. Turns out I could have got the Metro, but I was new in town and wanted to psyche myself up before heading below. It was free to enter - only the graveyards and parks are free in Paris. Everywhere else is rip-off city.
Once within, appreciating the scale of the necropolis, I decided to attempt to view it in sections, starting on my immediate left hand side. The first thing which threw me were the statues and busts which adorned the graves or were in fact the graves themselves. I saw an emerald green statue an old chap waving a sword (the blade was gone) and was taken by the look on his face and so began a long day of amazement followed by photographs.
Many of the graves were in fact small crypts dedicated to entire families. Each had a door and in many cases a window. Some appeared to have been long since forgotten and I considered the grave of my grandfather and how small and grubby that was. I got right in amongst the graves and crypts. I was ashamed at first, but it was very quiet and some of the most interesting busts and statues were hidden away off the main Avenues of death.
I noted many crypts had no doors to front them and I stepped inside them. Some had empty beer bottles within, but on the whole the cemetery was relatively free from garbage when you consider the scale of it. Just then, a young man in black asked me if I spoke French. I replied 'non' and he rattled through the same question in a variety of languages. Exhausted by my non compliance, he smiled, shook his head and disappeared into the maze of concrete. He may have been a junkie or a George Michael fan, or he may even have been trying to give me the secret of existence - I will never now.
I saw the memorial to those killed resisting the NAZI regime and noted a familiar name on the plaque. I realised the street I was living on had been re-named after one of the fallen. I stared at the wall were the last of the Commune were thrown against and shot. I heard the noise of children playing in a nearby school yard and the sun threw light onto the wall. It was lunch time already - time stands still in Pere Lachaise. I was gasping for some tea, but had to make do with some bottled water.
Despite the cemetery being quiet and there not being too many tourists on the day I went, I noted a man placing flowers on a grave. I looked closely without causing annoyance; it was the chap who owned the café I had dined in the previous night. I acknowledged the coincidence and it made the day more magical for me. About 50 metres along from the grave of Oscar Wilde, but no so close as to be obvious, a man proposed marriage. Just then, another man (and I stress it was not me) lept out from behind a grave and began to wipe something from his shoe in a most vigourous manner, as if his life depended upon it. He stood directly in front of the couple for about one whole minute.
I stopped to admire the crypt of the Famile Montgomery. From Scandinavia to Normandy, to England and finally to Scotland and Ulster - before a scion returned to France to both glory and infamy. I pondered my own ancestors and my insignificant place in Paris, let alone in the world. Would I have a grave when I died? Would anyone bring flowers to it and clean it?
I was stopped in my tracks by a pyramid shaped crypt - certainly the oldest of that style in the cemetery - dating to the Napoleonic days, when the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the Battle of the Pyramids invented modern Egyptology. I was somewhat taken by surprise when I read the inscription and found the crypt held the remains of a man from the same part of the world as me. Quentin Crawford from Kilwinning. Subsequent research showed he was a friend of the Empress Josephine and had owned the Elysee Palace. His life, his existence, started a chain of events which led to the Elysee becoming the official residence of French premiers.
Grave number 666 houses Kellerman - one of Napoleon's generals - though I admit I wasn't sure if it was Kellerman the Younger or his father. Marshal Ney was there also, in a wee corner where a lot of Napoleon's generals have been laid. The bullet riddled body of Marshal Murat - King of Naples - was in a tomb very close by, along with his wife Caroline, a sister of Napoleon. Marshal Davout is here also. Enthusiasts of the Napoleonic Wars would love Pere Lachaise. Alexander Walewski is there, the first son of Napoleon. David, who painted Napoleon, lies here. It's not all about Maria Callas and Balzac. When the tourists gather in numbers they head for those tombs, take a photo and scuttle back onto the coach.
There is one tourist trap within Pere Lachaise which did interest me. Jim Morrison - singer with US group the Doors - has lain here in an embarrassment of a grave since 1971. Over the years his grave had served the function of ashtray and urinal - a meeting place for posers and faux anarchist intellectuals. I am a big fan, so I had to go. I knew I was close because someone had kindly written instructions and travel directions on other tombs. I was disappointed - what else could I have been. The grave was fenced in behind a crowd control barrier and was guarded by a cemetery attendant, just in case the 5 or 6 genteel persons gazing upon it, should suddenly attempt to overthrow the government. We made a sorry sight, leaning forward in a desperate bid to get a photo without the metal barricade spoiling the shot.
I left them behind and exited through a smaller gate which led back onto the same street I had originally entered on. Those two tramps were gone and it felt safe to use the portaloo.
Unlike the British way, cemeteries in France are places where life is celebrated rather than places of mourning as such. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Père Lachaise cemetery located in the 20th arrondisment, in Paris. This cemetery is thought to be the most visited cemetery in the world and with good reason - it is now the residence of some of the world's most famous politicians, inventors, thinkers and icons. In fact, almost 300,000 bodies have been laid to rest at Père Lachaise and the list reads like a 'who's who' of French people and those with links to the city of Paris.
It was first established by Napoleon at the start of the 19th Century when cemeteries were banned from the centre of the city due to health and safety hazards. It was originally an unpopular choice compared to its counterparts on the other sides of the city (Montparnasse, Montmatre and Passy) as people considered in to be too far out of the city. In a stroke of marketing genius, that would see the complete upturn of the cemetery's status, the administrators organised the transfer of the bodies of Molière and La Fontaine to Père Lachaise. This indeed had the desired effect as the number of permanent residents rose dramatically from around 25 bodies to 33,000 in just a few years.
The cemetery covers a massive area and as a result there are a few entrances, which can each be reached from a different Metro station. For the main entrance, you'll need to take line 2 and get off at Philippe Auguste station which is located on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. The station named Père Lachaise is on line 3 and takes you to a side entrance of the cemetery. This is the entrance we used, however I would recommend the main entrance as you can pick up a much-needed map of the colossal cemetery. Many visitors choose the entrance next to Gambetta, also on line 3, which takes you in at the top of the cemetery, very close to Oscar Wilde's tomb.
Like I said, it is worth picking up a map at the entrance because the cemetery is laid out like a little village in its own right, with over 90 divisions criss-crossed by many sign-posted streets. At various intervals around the cemetery, there are maps located on huge boards alongside lists of the most famous residents and their locations. You could literally wander for hours amongst the many intricate and ornate tombs; however I would recommend deciding on the ones you specifically want to visit and planning a walk around the cemetery that includes them. This may seem like obvious advice, but believe me, when you get in there you'll lose all concept of time and purpose.
There is opulence in Père Lachaise that can only reflect the living status of its residents; huge tombs are dedicated to single people, ornate statues with long inscriptions give you an insight into the lives of the people who lay here. You can see why it became so popular so quickly; it certainly is a symbol of status to rest here and the cemetery puts paid to that saying that 'in death we are all equal'.
That said, in death the residents are being left to grow old gracefully - there are no facelifts or quick fix drugs here. Whilst the grounds of the cemetery are excellently manicured and well-kept, very little is done to interfere with the aging process of the tombstones. This has resulted in a beautifully somber mix of old and new that will instill a realisation that death comes to us all. There are a couple of cases where this policy of non-interference has had to be broken, probably the two most-visited tombs - Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde - but this again, in my opinion, only goes to reflect their lives as colourful people who often went 'against the grain'.
Jim Morrison's grave is an understated affair in a cemetery loaded with status. It nestles in a compact space between a series of others on the corner of the 6th Division. The grave is always covered in bunches of flowers, candles and photographs of The Doors' front man and you will, more often than not, find that you are not alone in visiting this grave. We were there in the depths of a very cold winter and found a group of students singing in front of the grave. This popularity has caused a lot of consternation amongst the relatives of nearby residents as other tombs have been defaced with arrows pointing out Jim's grave. This has resulted in the tomb itself being cordoned off with tape and numerous signs in the area warning about vandalism.
Where Jim Morrison's grave is understated, Oscar Wilde's is the polar opposite; a giant sculpture adorned with the Sphinx and in a bright coloured stone that has been repaired on more than one occasion over the years. It is a tradition amongst his admirers that they kiss Wilde's tomb with lipstick-covered lips. This has resulted in the stone being turned into a piece of art with every available inch covered in red or bright pink lips. The stone is also covered with many handwritten quotes and eulogies. You might think that this is a desecration of his memory, and certainly the administrators of the cemetery would agree, but I would say that it is a testament to his popularity and that it reflects, again, his desire to stand out from the crowd. After all he does certainly stand out here - his tomb is a splash of colour in an otherwise fairly grey backdrop.
There are, as I have said many reasons (not just famous ones) to visit this cemetery and I would definitely recommend it to anyone. The place is steeped in history and it isn't a depressing place, but more like an outdoor museum that will capture your imagination like no other.
If you remember back to my last review, I took you through the great little budget hotel we found in Paris. I mentioned there that we were out to do Paris on a tight budget. We did not want to miss out, not able to take in the indulgent cultures to be found in gay Paris, just because we are not as well off as some. So we had to really research the holiday before we set off, in order to know what we were going to do, and how to get there. It was this research, that led us to Pere Lachaise cemetery, one of the unknown jewels in Frances crown.
So we left from our hotel, and walked for ten minutes to La Chappelle station, where are research told us we would be able to get a train straight to Pere Lachaise. Tickets cost us one Euro fifty each, which works out at about one pound twenty sterling. That was one of the best things we found about Paris. The public transport is very good. One Euro fifty was the maximum we paid on a train, and this was true should you stay on for one stop or ten. Excellent value!
We arrived at Pere Lachaise, and the station was literally at the entrance. One top tip from me, is to go to the little office, and get a map at the start. This is a big cemetery, trust me. The cemetery is split into little roads, each with their own street names and signs. Unfortunately tourists have thought it funny to turn these round, which to me is an insult to the lives of those who are buried there.
The cemetery itself seemed, as you would expect, a sombre place. I was struck by sheer scale of the place. I felt full of respect, and in a way it was a very emotive place. Some of the graves and tombs here cost hundreds of thousands, and are meticulously maintained by relatives of the people who rested there.
I am sure that there are many of you who are asking, "why would you want to go there?". Well, it is one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. Named for Ft (Pere) Francois de la chaise, who was confessor to louis the fourteenth, the cemetery, and was father of the chapel at the time (his life spanned from 1624 to 1709.). At the start of the 19th century, is was bought by the city. This was when cemeteries in the city centre were banned, as they were seen to pose health hazards. This eventually led to the creation of the catacombs in the city. Lachaise was seen to be far enough out of the city to be acceptable. Though this posed problems too. It was seen to be too far out to be popular for burials, and initially only around twelve funerals took place there. But governments, being what they are saw a way round this. They transferred famous remains to the cemetery in 1804, and further high profile remains were moved to Pere Lachaise in 1817. This had the desired effect, and the numbers grew from 12 to 33,000.
So, why the history lesson?
Simple. It was this move by the French government that turned Pere Lachaise into what it is today. There are now over 300,000 buried there, and if you include the ashes at the crematorium, the numbers are closer to one million. It fast became the place for the nobility, and celebrity to be buried. It is this that makes it a really interesting place to visit today.
There are far too many important peoples grave here to mention here, lest the review would be about 50,000 words, but a few of my personal favourites are listed here.
I was really excited to see this grave. Famous singer and songwriter with the doors, it was his wish to be buried here, having fallen in love with the capital, in particular the region of Montmartre. It was so interesting to see his grave. It was tiny, and poorly looked after in comparison, to the less famous graves around it. The Parisiens did not really want him here, as was the way he died. This can be seen in the vandalism around his grave. Pere Lachaise were forced to place a security guard at the grave. It is covered in graffiti, and is a poor end for such a great man.
Famous French singer, most famous for the song "je ne regret rien". Her tomb is pristine, and is in itself a work of art. It reflects her beauty and talent when she was alive.
Polish composer, who was buried here. His music was renowned across the globe, and indeed his tomb was topped with a carving of an angel crying. It was said that she cried for the death of the music, which filled heavens hearts now, not ours here on earth. Although he was buried here, his heart is in a pillar, in the holy cross church in Warsaw.
His tomb is very art deco, and most noticeable is that it is covered with lipstick, from the thousands of men, and women who have come here to pay their respects by kissing the monument. coincidentally, when I was on holiday last year in Dublin, I visited the place of his birth, and there I stood in Paris having come full circle.
Simply, the list could go on. From the architect of the Louvre to Marcel Marceau. It is a really interesting place, filled with history, and grandeur. But as we walked, whiling away the hours we stumbled across perhaps the most moving place we have ever seen.
Not widely publicised, the cemetery has a section which contains large war monuments. The sheer scale, and beauty of these takes your breath away. For example there are separate monuments for those who died in the concentration camps of Auchwitz and Ravensbruck. Some of the inscriptions on these, even translated by my pigeon French, were really humbling. On one monument there wre stones placed there by visitors to symbolise people they had lost to the war. There were hundreds of these stones on the monument. Never before have I thought so long and hard about those who died for no reason. I was very emotional at this stage, and had to move on.
I hope this has been enlightening for you. We spent three hours here, and never spent a cent. It was probably one of the most interesting, and moving places I have been to in my life, and I would strongly suggest that visitors of Paris set aside the time to go there. You wont regret in.
To quote the late, great Oscar Wilde "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."
Highly recommended. G
P.S. You can take a really excellent virtual tour of the cemetery at
Pere Lachaise Cemetery Paris.
Why would I want to write an article on a cemetery ? Well, the answer is this. In France, cemeteries are a very important part of the life of French people. They are not places where forgotten souls are buried, but in fact celebrated on All Saints Day, as places where people who are remembered and loved and respected are still alive in the hearts of those who visit.
Any cemetery in France is decorated to celebrate the lives of people who have died and if you were to visit one in the first week of November, you would indeed be surprised and awed by the site that greets you.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery is a fine example of how people are awed by the past. This area of Paris was once a poor area until a rich merchant built his house here in 1430, and little did he know at the time, but history has a habit of changing places, and this building was no exception. It became a hospice for Jesuits, and then in 1803 the City of Paris bought the land and the urban planner at that time decided that this would be an ideal place to build a cemetery, and he was right.
This is an expensive cemetery. People have to pay for their tombs in France, and to be buried in this famous cemetery costs a fortune because you are amongst the rich and famous people.
My reason for writing this review is not to give you so much the history of the place, more to tell you why it stands out as a place to visit. The influence of the people buried at this cemetery on societies from the 1800s to the present day can actually be felt as you take your way through the graves of people that have changed things, people who have contributed to society, and people who will always be remembered. I am actually in awe when I go to this place. I feel as if I am with all these famous people. I think of the music of Chopin, the singing voice of Edith Piaf, (whose grave is a simple but rather respectful one) the writing of Oscar Wilde. For me, to sit in contemplation in such an inspired place is really a wonderful experience.
There lies within the boundaries of this cemetery little pieces of human history that all join together and make a picture of lives that have left us, but not just that, it also shows us how much has changed over the years, in the way that people think and express themselves. In one space in the cemetery, there is the grave of Jim Morrison, and young people sit here in contemplation smoking a joint or two and feeling that they are indeed visiting this great character from our time.
For me to sit in contemplation of Oscar Wilde, I am humbled to think that I am so close to a man who was a genius, albeit an arrogant one, but I have read his words, read his quotations and this man was a part of my life and how I think, and the words of his that I read became part of who I am. Oscar Wildes winged messenger is impressive and very beautiful.
To some, it may sound a sinister kind of place to visit, but for me, this is a place of great people who conjure up images of a time that is past, but also of a time that is happening right here and now. Jim Morrisons grave is covered in graffiti which some see as pointless although when you read the messages, these are not messages of destruction, but little messages to Jim Morrison from people who cared and who are touched by that necessity to leave some little token of their respect, albeit in graffiti form.
Walking through the many hectares of land which make up this cemetery, you cannot help but be awed by the artwork, the beauty, and even in some instances the humbleness of the gravestones. There is just so much to see. This is the burial place of so many people that made a difference to history. The Federalists Walls which are a series of monuments to people who died in the Holocaust make you stand in quiet contemplation and respect, make you take notice of the terrible atrocities that have happened within short term history, and the grave of great lovers Abailard and Heloise make you think of epic lovestories that pass the test of time.
In the centre of one of Europes most beautiful cities within shouting distance of the Bastille, this place is visited by thousands of tourists every year, and to me is a link between now and then, a place where past meets up with present and reminds each individual that visits it that life is but a passing phase, but that our actions and our behaviour towards mankind are the traces that each human being leaves behind for the next one to appreciate.
Here in the lushness of gardens and statues, you can be lost for a while in remembrance and for human beings sometimes that is a very special place to be for without remembrance what does mankind stand for ? Where is its importance ? This is a place for respect, thought, and tranquillity in the heart of a huge city that is every moving and ever increasing. This is a port of calm in an otherwise hectic stay for me, and I hope you will find it that special too.
Thank you for reading.