Visiting Paris Cemeteries

November in Paris begins with yet another long weekend away from work – le pont de la Toussaint (All Saints Day) – one of many strewn along the French calendar year. As Paris florists bring out their stock of chrysanthemum for the annual commemoration of Parisians now gone, and as other Parisians pack their cars and pile up at the exits of the city for yet another frantic weekend on France’s chock-a-block highways, why not use this most appropriate time of year for a less stressful outing to one of the capital’s cemeteries. This should be completed with the purchase of Georges Brassens’ “La Ballade des Cimetières,” a perfect way to record your outing and do your French homework.

For many centuries, the central cemetery of Paris was le Cimetière des Saints-innocents, into which had been piled up the remains of generations of Parisians since Gallo-Roman days. It was situated next to the central market of Les Halles, on the corner of rue Saint-Denis and rue Berger. By the late 18th century the stench of putrefaction and the danger of epidemics were so great that a general outcry arose demanding the demolition of the site. Voltaire considered it such a barbarity that it placed the French below the Hottentots! But one journalist, who opposed the demolition on religious grounds, was sent to the Bastille prison for an entire year. It was not only the Cimetière des innocents that was closed, but all the other cemeteries of Paris, whose occupants were transferred first to the newly opened catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau, then south of the city boundaries, an operation which began on April 7, 1786 and took 15 months. Night after night, eerie processions carried draped remains from the different cemeteries of Paris to their new abode where the bones of six million of them now rest, including those of Danton and Robespierre!

The Paris Catacombs run 20 meters underground, a 1,500 meter-long maze of galleries padded neatly with the bones and skulls. The builders of the Catacombs, with macabre nonchalance, used the tibia of the deceased to enhance the environment. A rotunda at one end of the Catacombs has even been named La Rotunde des Tibias.

Today the former Square des innocents (now Place Joachim-du-Bellay) bustles with street performers and loitering crowds, who gather around the Renaissance fountain with its cascading water, unaware that they are treading the soil that once buried the innocent dead.

Paris has but two churchyards left, one at Saint-Pierre de Montmartre (open only on November 1) and one at Saint-Germain de Charonne. Both were situated outside Paris at the time of the ban and that is why they have survived. So were the cemeteries of  what is now the 16th arrondissement as well as the three main cemeteries that opened in the early 19th century: le Cimetière du nord (Montmartre), le Cimetière du sud (Montparnasse) and the Cimetière de l’est, known as the “Père Lachaise” cemetry.
Montparnasse Cemetery

Before the cemetery of Montparnasse was confiscated during the French revolution to be used for the burial of unclaimed bodies, the grounds had belonged to the Christian Ordre de la Charité –  its windmill still stands within the cemetery’s precincts, the only one to have survived in the 14th arrondissement.

As you wander through the cemetery (maps are available at the entrance gate) you will come upon familiar names – Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Tristan Tzara and Zadkine, as well as the graves of their 19th century elders, Guy de Maupassant and Baudelaire. Baudelaire was deeply rooted in Montparnasse. Convinced of the futility of traveling and of the potential for experiences at home, he announced his intention to inscribe on the front of [Montparnasse] station, “On ne part pas” (One does not depart). No tombstone bears his name; he lies next to his mother and stepfather, Général Aupick.

The sculptors who embellished the area and its cemetery are buried here too – Bourdelle, Bartholdi, Brancusi and Henri Laurens, who composed his own epitaph in the form of a statue titled “l’Adieu!” An early Cubist work by Brancusi, “Le Baiser,” stands here too, celebrating the final victory of love over death – which explains, perhaps, why it surmounts an unoccupied tomb.
The “Père Lachaise”

The “Père Lachaise” cemetry opened in an area perceived by most Parisians as remote and unappealing. Not so the dead. From the start, those very proper Parisians, who when still alive had taken up residence on the opposite side of the city and would have never set foot in these accursed parts, were ready to pay astronomical prices for a share in the most prestigious cemetery in Paris. The ‘Père Lachaise,’ a spectacular necropolis, basically constitutes the only museum the 20th arrondissement has to show for itself. Here the last two centuries of the history of France and Paris are on display and the ghosts of the ‘Tout-Paris’ enjoy the setting of the largest garden in the capital –  44 hectares – rising above the world of the living to the west on a lofty hill, that much closer to heaven.

In order to make a commercial success of the venture, the 19th century bourgeoisie had to be persuaded to allow their remains to be transferred to the eastern edge of Paris, not yet a place of evil reputation but certainly remote. The prefect of the Seine, Frochot, resorted to an astute ‘promotional campaign’ which, by playing on vanity, naturally worked: by putting up for sale in perpetuity land grant property, he was sure to arouse interest among self-engrossed Parisians, and by setting prices so high that only the upper crust could afford them, he made the new cemetery both desirable and fashionable. When Frochot further transferred to this site the remains of glorious past celebrities – notably those of the medieval lovers Abélard and Héloise and those mistaken for La Fontaine and Molière – everyone was taken in by it, including Frochot himself, who rests in division 19.

Balzac, who had buried the characters in his books here was brought here in his turn, despite his biting account of the place and of its clients. “This is a disgusting comedy! This is once again the ‘Tout-Paris’ with its streets, its signs, its industries, its hotels; but seen through the wrong end of the spyglass, a microscopic Paris, reduced to the small dimensions of the shadows, of larva, of the dead, a human race that has nothing great left but its vanity.” (Ferragus)

Or as Georges Brassens put it summarily in one of his songs, “Les gens avaient à coeur de mourir plus haut que leur cul,” (People had set their hearts on dying higher than their arse).

Both had in mind the extravagant monuments erected for the dead in a delirium of self-aggrandizement. The best artists of the day, the very same who were commissioned to embellish Paris – Percier, Fontaine, Viollet-le-Duc, Garnier, Viscount, Davioud – were now recruited to inflate the egos of the deceased and build for them bombastic mausoleums.

The Jews also were allotted (one of the rare fashions that have not worn out in nearly 200 years!) a sector in the new cemetery, since they had been emancipated during the Revolution, but the Muslims were granted a section only in 1856 by Napoleon III who was seeking a “rapprochement” with Turkey. The defeated Commune was granted a share also, through more reluctantly. In 1883, the Third Republic, by then secure in its victory, could afford the magnanimous gesture of offering the working classes a shrine to mourn their frustrated ideals. The monument is called “Le Mur des Fédérés.”

The “Père Lachaise” cemetry has been extended several times since it was first acquired by Frochot on behalf of the city of Paris in 1804. Part of the site was in the 15th century the splendid property of a wealthy spice merchant, Régnault de Wandonne, who had bought the grounds from the Bishop of Paris, the owner of large stretches of land on the periphery of the city, notably the entire area of today’s 8th arrondissement. The estate was still known as La Folie-Régnault two centuries later, when the Jesuits bought it as a country retreat from their city dwelling on the busy rue Saint-Antoine. They renamed it Mont Louis, in homage to the Sun King who had given the Jesuits his full support and had chosen his own confessor from among their ranks, the Reverend Father François d’Ais de la Chaize – hence the name “Père Lachaise” given to the estate later. The Jesuits did not sustain their influence over the licentious Louis XV and were expelled from France altogether in 1763, following which the Mont Louis was bought by private individuals and fell eventually into the hands of the Baron family.

It would be impossible to list all the celebrities who rest here – Chopin, Piaf and Yves Montand are certainly among the favorites, as well as Jim Morrison, whose fans used to gather around his grave for psychedelic and other uplifting ceremonies, until a closer watch was recently put on the site. The Anglo-Saxon community pays its respects to Oscar Wilde, some visit Isadora Duncan’s grave, and fewer, Sir Richard Wallace’s. Distinguished representatives of the fine arts, science, music, dance, literature, the armed forces and politics are gathered here under the shade of 12,000 venerable trees, alongside more ordinary Parisians. As befitting the orderly French, they have chosen to complete their earthly journey in the 20th arrondissement, at the end of the snail-shell-like layout of Paris. The streams of daily visitors (this is the sixth most visited site in the capital) enjoy recognizing the original bearers of so many of the city’s street names by stopping at their graves, thus perpetuating their memory and piecing together fragments of the history of Paris.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery of Paris, is located at the junction of rue des Rondeaux and avenue du Père-Lachaise. With the help of a leaflet at the entrance you will find the location of the tombs you are interested in. Some visitors may feel uncomfortable among the thick forest of forlorn family vaults, now abandoned for lack of caring descendants. It is a gloomy setting at the close of a late November day, an implacable reminder in a territory largely taken over by cats of the uselessness of man’s vanity. With the ever-increasing number of unclaimed vaults, it has been decided to put them back on the market, to prevent their dangerous collapse. The remains of their occupants are piled up in boxes in a secret catacomb, whose existence is unknown to most visitors, and whose entrance is barred even to the cemetery’s guards.

The pompousness of the 19th century has given way in modern times to a more sober style, even when commemorating the most tragic events of our century. Hence, the various memorials to the deportees and Resistance members of World War II, which express the horror and anguish poignantly but with no florid pathos. A beautiful piece of mosaic in the memorial to Communist members of the Resistance brings a patch of color to the place.

Naturally the “Père Lachaise” is a propitious site for those attempting to communicate with the world beyond, whether by psychedelic means around the tomb of Jim Morrison, or through a trance by the tomb of Allan Kardec. Kardec, whose real name was Denizard-Hippolyte Rivail, was a pedagogue and science teacher who lived in the 19th century. He was too rational a fellow to be taken in by such nonsense as turning tables and mediums, ideas freshly imported from the United States. Scoffing at his more gullible contemporaries, he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” which was precisely what happened when he eventually agreed to attend a session. He went on to publish the “Book of Spirits” using the pen name Allan Kardec. This was supposedly the name he had borne in the ancient times of the Druids, when he and the spirit Zephyr had roamed the forests of Gaul and picked the holy mistletoe with a golden sickle. Having exhausted his savings to publish the book, which he claimed was dictated by the spirits of Socrates, John the Evangelist, Fénelon, Benjamin Franklin  and Napoleon, he soon recovered all his expenses, made a nice profit, and was showered with glory, his book having become one of the bestsellers of the time. Today, the bookshop at 10 avenue du Père-Lachaise still carries his works.

Other visitors focus their attention on the tomb of Victor Noire, the journalist who in January 1870 was shot dead by Napoleon III’s cousin, Pierre Bonaparte, at the latter’s home in Auteuil, in the heat of a political dispute over the capitulation of Prussia. The murder was followed by a gigantic funeral, attended by 100,000, and led to a riot on the Champs-Elysées. A strikingly realistic sculpture of the man at the moment of his assassination surmounts his tomb: dressed in his morning coat, he lies on his back, his top hat next to him, where it has dropped off. For some unfathomable reason his bronze effigy became the object of a fetishistic cult who believed that caressing it would cure women of sterility. The shiny patch you may notice around the protruding phallic region of the bronze sculpture is the result of years of tactile devotion.

You may think the Père Lachaise is not the place to crack a joke, but the humorist Pierre Desproges would surely disagree. Knowing himself to be terminally ill when only in his forties, he braved death as best he could with this piece of advice to the living: “Commit suicide while you are still young – you will have more time to enjoy death.” One assumes Desproges is enjoying his, for he lies close to several great musicians – Chopin, Cherubini and Bellini – who are surely enlivening his stay here.

This article is adapted from Tirza Vallois’ book, “Around and About Paris – the 13th-20th arrondissements,” (Iliad Books). Two other volumes spotlight the 1st-7th and 8th-12th arrondissements. All are available at most Paris bookshops specializing in English-language publications.