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. The famous cemetery in Paris, Pere Lachaise, is the resting place of many famous people who once lived here, including Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. It’s also one of the world’s most visited cemeteries in the world.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of cemeteries, but there is something about Père Lachaise that makes this a different experience. After all, this is probably the closest you will get to rub shoulders with so many famous (although dead) people in one place.
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About Père Lachaise Cemetery
Dating back to 1804, this famous cemetery in Paris 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 downright 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 an efficient 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. This cemetery 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. It was outside the city and on a hill, which made it unappealing to Parisians.
To entice them and add prestige to the newly created cemetery, authorities transferred the remains of French playwright Molière and the famous lovers, Abelard and Heloise, here in the early 19th century. From what we can see today, it worked like a charm.
The cultural importance
The most famous cemetery in Paris is home to many cultural icons. Some of the greatest minds, artists and talent have 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 famous characters that would make an impressive guest list at any party.
The cemetery 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 famous people buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery include musicians, poets, writers, actors, painters and other illustrious citizens. Paris always attracted the creative types, so many of them lived 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 visitors’ damage. 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, some attract more visitors than the rest. It probably has to do with who the graves belong to more than anything else. However, even those that are not recognizable today are often some of the most beautiful ones.
Abelard and Heloise
The 12th-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.
If you’re interested in reading more about the ill-fated romance between Abelard and Heloise, you might enjoy reading the letters the two wrote to each other as published here.
Best known as the frontman for the American band The Doors, Jim Morrison died at the age of 27 in Paris in 1971. Jim’s grave has been a popular site for fans since his death. Over the years, it’s been damaged by over-eager fans and even had a guard at one point keeping watch over it. 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 the main draw.
Jim Morrison died unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances. If you enjoy conspiracy theories, you might enjoy reading Jim Morrison’s Death And The Theories Around It.
The grave of Victor Noir, also known as Monsieur Noir, was once 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 led 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. Many fans have left numerous trinkets, letters, and lipstick marks all over the marble over the years. Today, the tomb is enclosed by a clear protective wall to prevent further damage.
More note-worthy famous people buried in this famous cemetery in Paris
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)
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- 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 Paris’ largest 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 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.
What you need to know
The entrance to the Pere Lachaise cemetery is free. It’s open all year round. For detailed hours and location information, visit the official site.