While a trip to a cemetery might not be on top of many people’s must-see places, there are times when it can be an interesting attraction. Paris’ famous Pere Lachaise cemetery is the resting place of many famous people who once lived here, including the likes of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stain. It’s also one of the world’s most visited cemeteries in the world.
Normally, I’m not huge fan of cemeteries, but there is something about Père Lachaise that makes this a totally different experience. After all, this is probably the closest you will get to rubbing shoulders with so many famous (although dead) people in one place.
Dating back to 1804, the Pere Lachaise cemetery is home to 300,000 graves scattered over 44 hectares (9 acres). According to the city officials, this is the resting place of over 1,000,000 people. The cemetery takes its name from Father François d’Aix de La Chaise who happened to be King Louis XIV’s confessor and lived nearby.
The famous necropolis feels like a large park with over 5,000 trees, vines and moss intertwined among the graves. Here you’ll find an outstanding collection of 19th century sculptures ranging from simple to ornate and down right ostentatious. From Gothic graves, ancient mausoleums, burial chambers and elaborate statues, it’s almost like visiting an outdoor museum.
The creation of Pere Lachaise cemetery was a very practical solution. As other cemeteries in Paris reached capacity, there was a need for additional space to bury the dead. Before that, Parisians were buried in the quarters of the city they resided in during their life. Pere Lachaise changed that concept.
The only criteria for being buried here was a residency in Paris, no matter where. It also became a resting place for people of all faiths and creeds as well as the first crematorium in France.
More than just a cemetery
It might be difficult to believe, but the officials struggled to convince people to choose Pere Lachaise as their final resting place. At that time, it was outside the city and on a hill, which made it unappealing to Parisians. In effort to entice them and add prestige to the newly created cemetery, authorities transferred the remains of French playwright Molière as well as the famous lovers Abelard and Heloise here in the early 19th century. From what we can see today, it worked like a charm.
The Pere Lachaise cemetery is home to many cultural icons, some of the greatest minds, artists and talent that descended on Paris over the centuries. Thousands flock here each year to pay respects to their heroes and out of admiration for the legacies they left behind.
Here you will find French writers, American musicians, Irish poets and other international artists. It’s a collection of the famous characters that would make an impressive guest list at any party.
Pere Lachaise feels like a park, because it was designed as one by the architect Alexandre Théodore Brongniart. Inspired by the English gardens, Pere Lachaise was revolutionary in design with winding streets and directional signs of a cityscape.
Here you’ll find outstanding examples of 19th century art and architecture as many families often hired architects and sculptors to design the tombs, graves and mausoleums. It’s no wonder some of these sculptures look like they came out of a museum or a private collection of art.
Famous people buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery
Many of the famous people buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery include musicians, poets, writers, actors, painters and other illustrious citizens. Paris always attracted the creative types so there were many of them living here at any point in time. For those buried here, death became just the beginning.
Some of the graves are so popular that the officials had to fence them off to protect them from damage by the visitors. Both Jim Morrison’s and Oscar Wilde’s graves are an example of this. Overly eager fans have caused significant damage to the graves over the years and they are now protected from further damage. Everyone visiting the cemetery should be respectful of the graves and the people buried here.
While all the graves at the Pere Lachaise cemetery are interesting and artful, there are some that attract more visitors than the rest.
Abelard and Heloise
The 12the century figures of Abelard and Heloise were star crossed lovers, living in a time that didn’t favour their love. Abelard, was a theologian hired to instruct Heloise, the niece of the Canon of Paris. Despite the 20-year difference between them, the two fell in love and fled to Brittany. Their love wasn’t meant to be as Heloise’s uncle found them and forced her to a nunnery. Abelard didn’t fare any better as he was forcibly castrated. The lovers never saw each other again but wrote letters for the remainder of their lives. Their remains were moved to Pere Lachaise in 1817, making them the oldest in the cemetery where they are united for eternity.
Best known as a front man for the American band The Doors, Jim’s grave is a popular site for fans. Over the years it’s been damaged and even had a guard at one point keeping watch. It’s routinely roped off to keep visitors from causing further damage. The grave itself is quite simple, but it’s the man that occupies it that shines.
The grave of Victor Noir, also known as Monsieur Noir, used to be fenced off, but the public outcry changed that. Monsieur Noir was a 22-year-old journalist named Yvan Saman. In 1870, he was shot by the great-nephew of Napoleon, Pierre Bonaparte. The legend said that stroking the statue’s crotch let to fertility and better sex life. Judging from the current state of it, that story was taken quite seriously. The man probably gets more action in the afterlife than he did when he was alive.
Probably one of the most famous graves in Pere Lachaise belongs to the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. The tomb, shaped like an angel with wings was defaced right after it was erected. Over the years, many fans have left numerous trinkets, letters and lipstick marks all over the marble. Today, the tomb is enclosed by a clear protective wall to prevent further damage.
More note-worthy famous people buried at Pere Lachaise
The list of all famous people would take a long time to compile, so here is a quick snapshot of some of the cultural icons you will find buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Writers and poets
- Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (French writer)
- Alfred de Musset (French poet)
- Molière, La Fontaine (French playwright)
- Victor Hugo (French writer)
- Marcel Proust (French writer)
- Guillaume Apollinaire (French poet)
- Balzac (French writer)
- Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (American writers)
Musicians and performers
- Frédéric Chopin (Polish classical musician)
- Sarah Bernhardt (French actress)
- Isadora Duncan (American dancer)
- Edith Piaf (French musician)
- Eugène Delacroix (French Romantic artist)
- Amedeo Modigliani (Italian painter and sculptor)
- Camille Pissarro (French impressionist painter)
Georges-Pierre Seurat (French painter and father of neo-impressionism)
- Théodore Géricault (French Romantic painter)
- Baron Haussmann (19th-century architect who designed modern Paris)
- Georges Haussmann (French civil engineer and town planner responsible for the design of modern Paris)
- Mur des Fédérés /The Communards’ Wall (147 combatants of the Paris Commune were shot and thrown into a ditch in 1871)
Visiting Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Walking through the cemetery is an interesting experience. Partly creepy, it’s surprisingly peaceful and enjoyable. We went on a sunny morning that wasn’t overly hot nor was it too cold. My previous visit was in December and it wasn’t as enjoyable.
The cemetery is less spooky on a sunny day and you can appreciate the details of the many artistic finished on the graves. You don’t have to be a dark tourist to add it to your itinerary. It really is like a giant park that can be explored for hours. Most of all, it makes for an interesting stop while in Paris and one I highly recommend.
You can stroll along the many roads or cross between the rows of graves in any direction. For a better idea of which spots you want to visit, check out this map.