From the brasseries and bistros that inspired Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to the practice rooms in the Palais Garnier immortalised by Degas’s pastel coloured ballerinas, there is no city more iconic in art and literature than Paris. But if you look beyond the tapestry of Paris’s café culture, there is one place in the French capital where you can hang out with some of the city’s most illustrious residents — the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
While the confines of the city can feel hectic in the tight cobbled streets of Montmartre or the wide boulevards in the inner arrondissements, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to escape into the French countryside by hire car to explore the country’s green pastures in the search for some peace and quiet. Fortunately, there’s no need to leave the city limits to find that sanctuary inside the Paris city limits. An alternative to the urban parks, explore some of the city’s human stories by paying a visit to one of its iconic cemeteries.
I first went to Paris with my college for my French class as a teenager. Dragged around all the famous spots like the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysées, I only saw a side of Paris presented by a list of bullet points you can find at the front of the guide book. When I returned years later, there were many off-beat places I prioritised on this Parisian visit, and Père Lachaise Cemetery topped the list.
I love cemeteries; they are filled with stories about the city and its inhabitants. This is why I will often explore the local cemetery while travelling, whether wandering the silent gravel paths on the walled island of Isola di San Michele in Venice; the vast cemetery in the Spanish exclave of Melilla in North Africa overlooking the foamy waves crashing against the rugged rocks; or Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery on All Souls Night illuminated by tea lights set beside the graves. Paris’s iconic necropolis, and even more famous residents, made it a priority on this solo visit.
Exiting the metro station, the cemetery walls loomed along the stretches of the Boulevard de Ménilmontant, dotted with flower shops selling wreaths and maps pinpointing all the famous graves . On my first visit I followed the winding paths round the graves and mausoleums looking for Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf.
At first I simply ticked off the names on the boxes as one does when they travel with a plan. That plan lay inside the folded map I held between my fingers. I ran down the names on the list, trying to see how many famous graves I could find. I paid a visit to each name on the way to Oscar, feeling disappointed and saddened at the harsh lines of the neutered art deco angel hovering above Oscar Wilde’s tomb; horrified at the lipstick marks that dotted the marble like graffiti.
I returned to Père Lachaise on my third visit to Paris. This time I didn’t bring the map. Instead Père Lachaise took on a different dimension. As the leaves fell onto the paths, crunching beneath my feet, I began to pay attention to the details. The fresh flowers laid beside a grave with an unfamiliar name serves as a reminder that Père Lachaise is not only a resting place for the greats of Paris, but also for its people. I wandered the labyrinthine paths that took me from grave to grave, from simple tombstones, mourning angels and grand mausoleums.
The cemetery is not only a place of rest, but a pilgrimage site. From the lilies laid to rest next to Edith Piaf’s grave or even the kisses I initially despised on Oscar Wilde’s grave on my first visit, I realised that Père Lachaise was loved not only for its peaceful corners lined with leafy trees and cats roaming the grounds, curling up on random graves warming the stones, but for the greats who made Paris the city it is.
While the first impression of Oscar’s tomb for me was a sign of vandalism, and I would never apply lipstick and kiss the cold marble myself, I could see this was an act of love for the author who gave the world Dorian Gray and the Happy Prince.
Cemeteries are a place we can find signs of our humanity. How we remember the dead shows how we remember them in life, and taking a walk in the cemetery grounds is, contrary to popular belief, not morbid. We celebrate the people who they were in life, from those we loved in our own family to those who impacted our lives in other ways. Fans of The Doors come in droves to Jim Morrison’s grave in a rock ‘n roll pilgrimage to remember the legend he left behind, and literary young lovers visit the tomb of Abélard and Héloïse, the original 12th century star-crossed lovers immortalised by their letters.
Some even come to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery for stranger actions, like rubbing the crotch of the grave of Victor Noir, a 19th century journalist shot in a duel by Prince Bonaparte. Above his tomb lies a life-sized bronze statue, sculpted by Jules Dalou that portrays Noir at the moment of his death. For some unknown reason, the sculptor also included a very noticeable bulge in the statue’s trousers. Over the centuries, this grave became a point of a fertility pilgrimage where women would rub the member hoping that it would enhance fertility or bring a husband within a year, and the years of hopefully rubbing has left the famous part of the grave with a contrasting golden hue against the oxidised green bronze.
From superstition, reverence, life and death – and above all, Paris – Père Lachaise Cemetery is a place that can teach you about the city and its people.
Featured image by Andrea Schaffer.