Ordinarily I wouldn’t have chosen to visit a cemetery but in this case, I’d have missed a gem! Ostensibly heading to the Marais – totally in the opposite direction – from lunch in 11th, my beloved made it sound as if this impromtu visit was his intention all along!
The cemetery takes its name from King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise. It’s the most prestigious and most visited necropolis in Paris. Situated in the 20th arrondissement, it extends to 44 hectares (110 acres) and contains 70,000 burial plots. It was the first garden cemetery, as well as the first municipal one in Paris. It is also the site of three WWI memorials.
The cemetery is a mix between an English park and a shrine. All funerary art styles are represented: Gothic graves, Haussmanian burial chambers, ancient mausoleums, a columbarium and crematorium etc. etc. A number of famous people are buried here but I confess to not spotting the graves of Honoré de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Jean-François Champollion, Jean de La Fontaine, Molière, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jim Morrison, Alfred de Musset, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro or Oscar Wilde, to name just a few.
Père Lachaise is still accepting new burials however it’s not an easy place to secure a plot. I overheard a guide explaining to a group of tourists that you can only be buried there if you die in the French capital or if you lived there. Allegedly few plots are available but I spotted one or two. The grave sites range from a simple, unadorned headstone to towering monuments and even elaborate mini family chapels about the size and shape of a telephone booth, with just enough space for a mourner to step inside, kneel to say a prayer, and leave some flowers.
The cemetery manages to squeeze an increasing number of bodies into a finite and already crowded space. It does this by combining the remains of multiple family members in the same grave. At Père Lachaise, it is not uncommon to reopen a grave and inter another coffin. Some family mausoleums or multi-family tombs contain dozens of bodies, often in several separate but contiguous graves. Shelves are usually installed to accommodate their remains.
During relatively recent times, the cemetary has adopted the standard practice of issuing 30-year leases on grave sites, so that if a lease is not renewed by a family, the remains can be removed, space made for a new one, and the overall deterioration of the cemetery minimised. Abandoned remains are boxed, tagged and moved to Aux Morts Ossuary, in the cemetery.
Although some sources incorrectly estimate the number interred at around 300,000 in Père Lachaise, according to the official website of the city of Paris, over one million people have been buried there. Along with the stored remains in the Aux Morts Ossuary, the number of human remains exceeds 2–3 million – that’s a lot of bones! In addition, there are many more in the Columbarium, which holds the remains of those who opted for cremation.
We only strolled around a very small part of the cemetery but it was surprisingly peaceful and rather serene. I’d happily return for a more expansive tour. Who knows I might even find the resting place of one of those famous names above!