Cemetery of the Week #10: Père Lachaise Cemetery

Tombs in Père Lachaise

Cimetière du Père Lachaise
16, rue du Repos, Paris 75020, France
Telephone: +33 01 43 70 70 33
Established: 1804
Size: 110 acres
Number of interments: 300,000 in 77,000 graves
Open: Mid-November through early March: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sunday and bank holidays 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mid-March through early November: Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday 8:30 a.m.-6; Sunday and bank holidays 9:00 a.m.-6.

Père Lachaise (pronounced pear la shez) is the most important cemetery in the modern history of the Western dead. Spanning 108 acres, the first ornamental cemetery in the West is probably the most visited cemetery in the world.

Prior to its creation, the bulk of defunct Europeans were jammed into anonymous mass graves in churchyards or jumbled together in ossuaries like the Paris Catacombs. As the Industrial Revolution concentrated the living into larger and ever denser cities, city churchyards grew equally overcrowded, devolving into noxious charnel pits where cholera and other diseases festered.

In June 1804, Napoleon banned burial within or just outside churches, synagogues, and temples. With his blessing, Père Lachaise opened on December 2 — the week he was declared emperor. Founded on French Enlightenment ideals, some of Père Lachaise Cemetery’s innovations seem obvious now: the cemetery as park, with trees and benches; bodies lying side by side, rather than atop each other; burial space purchased in perpetuity; survivors allowed to erect monuments to their dead.

The opening of Père Lachaise ran counter to 1500 years of ecclesiastical history. From the first, Père Lachaise — though named for François d’Aix de La Chaise, the confessor to Louis XIV, who once owned the land — was conceived as a secular burial ground where all faiths could be interred together. It set aside no unconsecrated ground for suicides, actors, or others held in low esteem by the Church. In fact, the Church’s domination of death was specifically rejected.

However, the graveyard needed more than high ideals to attract clientele; it needed a gimmick. First to be reburied in Père Lachaise were Héloïse and Abélard, medieval lovers punished for their passion. Soon to follow was a corpse advertised as Molière’s. When the famous playwright collapsed in 1673 during a performance of The Imaginary Invalid, he died without repudiating his profession and, consequently, received no last rites. Initially forbidden burial in a Catholic cemetery, Molière’s interment was allowed in Paris’s St. Joseph Churchyard only by special permission of Louis XIV. In 1792, a skeleton was removed from the plot of the unbaptized, stored for a while in a guardhouse, then put on display at Alexandre Lenoir’s museum of French monuments. For 18 years, the bones of this alleged Molière drew pilgrims. That notoriety induced the proprietors of Père Lachaise to purchase the purported bones of the playwright.

Other celebrities with better provenance followed: writers (Balzac, Colette, Alfred de Musset, Proust); painters (Corot, Daumier, David, Delacroix, Max Ernst, Modigliani, Pisarro, and Seurat); photographers (Nadar); composers (Bizet, Poulenc); and entertainers (Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Mélies, Edith Piaf, and Isadora Duncan), to mention a few. Paris Access calls it “a museum of French history, but far more lively than either a cemetery or a museum.”

With all those famous names, be sure that the cemetery has its share of rumors and scandal. Nine years after his death, an anonymous benefactor (believed to be Robert Ross, a former lover) retrieved Oscar Wilde’s body from his pauper’s grave in Bagneaux Cemetery and reburied him in Père Lachaise beneath a winged art deco sphinx commissioned from Sir Jacob Epstein. As originally designed, the sphinx was generously endowed, which scandalized one visitor enough to take a rock to its privates. According to Permanent Parisians, the severed appendage resided in the conservateur’s office for many years, where it served as a paperweight. In 2000, the angel’s genitalia were recast in silver and reattached by artist Leon Johnson for a video called [RE]membering Wilde.

After his ignominious death in a Paris bathtub, Jim Morrison was buried secretly by his girlfriend in Père Lachaise. Even though the grave lacked a marker, it became the site of pilgrimages, impromptu concerts, and purported satanic rituals. When “fans” attempted to steal Morrison’s skeleton, his estate placed a granite slab over the gravesite. It’s weighted down by a simple granite cube with a bronze plaque that says merely, “James Douglas Morrison 1943-1971” and bears an inscription in Greek that translates to “True to his own spirit.”

Off and on for decades, there were movements to evict the most disruptive celebrity from Paris’s most exclusive resting-place. After the grave’s lease was set to expire in 2001, the debate intensified. Eventually, the Morrison estate arranged for Jim to stay in perpetuity. The decades he’s lain in Père Lachaise have surpassed the years he walked around aboveground. He’s become part of the landscape now, a legitimate tourist attraction in the City of Light. A spokesman for Père Lachaise estimated that a million and a half visitors come to the cemetery each year. Most of them want to see Jim.

In its way, Père Lachaise created the Victorian-era attitudes toward death. Death ceased to be hidden. Mourning could be flaunted. It required accoutrements, even fashions. The cemetery became an appropriate place for a family cultural outing, an afternoon stroll, or courtship. Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity reports that Père Lachaise had become a tourist attraction by 1830. A guidebook titled Vèritable Conducteur aux Cimetières aux Père Lachaise, Montmartre, Montparnasse, et Vaugirard was published as early as 1836. It might have been the first cemetery guidebook, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

During the summer, you can stop at the guardhouse to retrieve a free map. In the winter, the unheated guardhouse may not be staffed.

Useful Links:

A virtual tour of Père Lachaise

A video tour of Père Lachaise

An illustrated history of Père Lachaise

A wonderful site covering all the cemeteries of Paris

Information on reMEMBERING WILDE

Avoid the Forever movie.

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Pere Lachaise Cemetery:

Meet Me at Pere Lachaise

Saving Graces

Stairway to Heaven

After the Funeral