Pere Lachaise Cemetery Paris
In the east of Paris is the largest city cemetery, Pere Lachaise. Nowadays it is the resting place of around 1,000,000 people and some say it is the most visited cemetery in the world.
The name of the cemetery comes from Pere Francois de la Chaise, confessor to Louis XIV who lived in a Jesuit house in the centre of the tract.
Pere Lachaise started out as a very small burial ground. People did not wish to end up there because it was too far from the City centre. Catholic worshippers did not wish to go there because the location had not been consecrated by the Church. However, In 1804 Napoleon, then newly appointed Emperor of France declared Pere Lachaise to be officially open to the public and that all people had the right to be buried there regardless of race or religion. The take up remained scanty.
Pere Lachaise contained only 13 graves. Paris officials decided to devise a ‘marketing strategy’.
They transferred the remains of the great writer Moliere and Jean de la Fontaine buried elsewhere in the City. Conducted as a public ceremony, it attracted the attention of other ‘applicants’. By 1812 the cemetery contained the remains of over 800 people. Then in 1817, with great aplomb, the remains of a certain Pierre Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil were transferred and placed under a canopy constructed from fragments of a well known Paris chapel. The couple were the subject of one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories. The nine hundred year old love affair of the 12th century philosopher and theologian and his student Heloise is known throughout France. Lovers or people searching for love at the time, would leave letters under the canopy hoping to find fulfilment for themselves. The romance eternally associated with Paris spread even to the graveyards.
The pomp and circumstance had the intended effect. People wanted to be buried amongst the rich, famous and romantic. By 1830 there were more than 33,000 permanent occupants.
The cemetery continues to be run in a very modern business style. Burial plots are available on 50, 30 and 10 year allocations. The last option of course is the cheapest. When the tenure expires and is not renewed, the bodies are excavated and taken to the very grand cremation chapel within the grounds. The bones are burned and the ashes are kept nearby. The crematorium is large and impressive and the ceremonies are conducted with great gravitas. The ashes of the cremated corpses are securely stored within the walls outside. They are all marked with a named plinth in neat rows.
Pere Lachaise is the location where 147 last “defenders of worker’s rights” from the Belleville district of the City were shot on the 28 May 1871. It is called the Communards Wall and is a collection point for people today standing for a left wing France. Strangely, Adolphe Theirs is also buried in the cemetery. He was the French President who presided over the execution and his grave is sometimes subjected to vandalism.
The Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde is buried in Pere Lachaise. His headstone is a prominent, carefully sculptured and contemporary carving. The location is visited by many people from all over the world on a daily basis. These days it is protected since so many people kissed the stone, it was starting to decay.
Edith Piaf is also buried in the cemetery. One of the finest singers in French history, her music is still played all over the world.
The composer Frederic Chopin has his tomb in Pere Lachaise. His gravestone is one of the earlier ones and is displayed prominently above the ground on a concrete plinth.
Pissarro, one of the most distinguished of the impressionist painters, also has his resting place marked in the cemetery, marked by a clean, simple and fresh design of headstone.
A gravestone that is almost permanently surrounded by visitors marks the resting place of legendary American rock musician Jim Morrison. His headstone is always covered in flowers left by fans.
A chart bearing prominent names and locations is displayed at the entrance gate. Every headstone tells a story. The cemetery is built on a gently sloping hill side in Paris in the 20th arrondissement on the eastern side of the city. To walk through it is almost to visit the last 200 years of French history. The pathways are cobbled and elegantly maintained. It is like walking along a stretch of peaceful country lanes, a place where time seems to stand still.
Bob Lyons is a Francophile who loves to wander the streets of Paris and France.