IV: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

We only had a few days in Paris where rain was not predicted, so we tried to plan our outdoor activities accordingly. Over the weekend we went to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise where we spent several hours getting lost in the enormous, beautiful cemetery.

We exited le métro at the Père-Lachaise stop, along lines 2 and 3, although it is apparently more common to exit at the Gambetta stop along line 2, in order to visit Oscar Wilde’s grave first, and spend the rest of the trip walking downhill. Coming from the Père-Lachaise stop, we entered a side entrance, took a quick picture of the famous grave listings and the map, and then started exploring.


Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

Opened in the early 1800s, the cemetery had very humble beginnings. At the time, it was located very far from the city center, and it had not been blessed by the Catholic Church. Within a decade of its opening though, the cemetery was accepting thousands of new burials per year: so many, in fact, the cemetery had to be expanded five times in the 1800s. Today there are over a million people buried there.

Lining the main roads are absolutely enormous mausoleums serving entire family names. Some look well-kept and frequently visited, while others had broken doors and rusty hinges.
Lining the main roads are absolutely enormous mausoleums serving entire family names. Some look well-kept and frequently visited, while others had broken doors and rusty hinges.

The cemetery apparently accepts new burials even today, although the requirements to be eligible are quite strict, and the waiting list is very long. I imagine it is also quite expensive for families to maintain the plots they own.

As seen above, the cemetery has many different levels. Even on a hill, every bit of available space is used.
One of the most interesting parts about the cemetery is how there doesn’t seem to be any arrangement based on burial date, at least to a casual observer like me. It wasn’t hard to find graves from the 1850s right next to graves from 2000 and beyond. I guess at a certain point the plots are just added wherever there is space.
Here you can see the juxtaposition of old and new, as well as how cramped the entire cemetery is.

We pinpointed 8-10 famous graves we absolutely wanted to see, and started our journey based on those. We stopped plenty of times along the way though, to examine old and new sites, wondering about the history and lives of each of these people.

I had to find this grave for François Arago, as it belonged to a famous French astronomer and politician.

One of the graves I was most interested in finding was Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac’s, after repeatedly using his laws in physics classes. Unfortunately, even with the map and 20 minutes spent scouring his section, I found it impossible to locate his grave. I later managed to locate a picture online and have no idea how we missed it, unless we were reading the map wrong.

Rows upon rows of mausoleums, and yet they are all so different. It was my first time seeing such a beautiful cemetery.
Rows upon rows of mausoleums, and yet they are all so different. It was my first time seeing such a beautiful cemetery.

One slightly amusing occurrence while walking around the grounds: we could hear a group in the distance well before we saw them, and eventually two men and a woman came into view. One man was clearly the leader, speaking English but obviously a native French speaker. The other two, a couple, looked a bit confused but were following along. I assumed they were visiting the leader and knew him previously, and he was acting in the role of tour guide. I guess we looked a bit confused, desperately trying to find Gay-Lussac’s grave, because he beckoned us to follow him over to Oscar Wilde. We politely declined, but by the time we had reached Oscar Wilde, he had about a dozen new followers all looking slightly confused, but also interested in what he was animatedly saying. He most definitely was not an employee of the cemetery – just a random guy who likes to collect people for free cemetery tours I guess.

For what it’s worth, we later passed what looked like a legitimate cemetery tour, although I’m sure you had to pay for it. The speaker also was not quite as excited as the guy from above, although I might trust his information more. A quick search shows that Viator offers walking tours of the cemetery, and I’m sure other companies do as well.

Jim Morrison’s grave, probably one of the most famous for Americans. Fitting in with the cramped style of the cemetery, it was actually in between two rows of graves, and had to be viewed from an angle. It was still one of the more decorated graves we saw.
Possibly the most famous grave in the cemetery, poet Oscar Wilde.
Another one of the most famous graves in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Édith Piaf, a French cabaret singer.
It’s easy to imagine that the empty ground on the right may one day be filled with new plots and tombstones.
We almost missed the well-decorated grave of pianist Frédéric Chopin, but luckily passed by it on our way out.

It may seem weird to visit a cemetery as a tourist attraction, and then spend several hours there, but this was probably one of my favorite experiences during the whole trip. Compared to the bustle of the city and the mega-cramped conditions at the famous museums and tourist attractions, it was amazing to breathe in the fresh air at the cemetery, relax in some peace and quiet, and have entire walkways to yourself. There were times when we couldn’t see anyone else around us. It didn’t hurt that we had a beautiful day for the visit as well. If you ever visit Paris and need a break from the city, I highly recommend Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

Next up is another day trip outside of the city, this one quite a bit further than Versailles.


One thought on “IV: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

  • I like the art on Wilde’s gravesite, sort of “poetry in motion”. Morrison’s gravesite seems small and cramped, despite his fame. Piaf’s gravesite, another who went before her time was up (suicide), clearly stands out! Growing up as a kid in Jersey City, I longed for a rural setting, the nearest available equivalent of sorts was Bay View Cemetery, about two blocks from where we lived. Loved to ride my bicycle there with my then best friend, Raymond. However, I enjoyed solitary cemetery riding, too.

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