Père Lachaise – the grandaddy of all Parisian cemeteries. This was the first big garden cemetery that paved the way for virtually every large cemetery (in the western world) that was created in the 19th century. It was revolutionary at the time – Napoleon basically took burials out of the church’s hands and made it so that anyone, regardless of what religion they belonged to or how they died, had the right to a decent burial in a decent place. The dead that were currently within the city limits (at that time) were dug up and put into what are now the catacombs of Paris, and from that moment on all burials had to be (what was then) outside the city limits. The main cemeteries were in the north (Montmartre), east (Père Lachaise), south (Montparnasse), and west (Passy). In the beginning, no one wanted to buried so far outside of the city in ground not consecrated by the church, but after a few successful PR campaigns (by moving Moliere and Jean de la Fontaine to PL, plus building a tomb to Abelard and Heloise), people wanted to get buried there. After the first year it opened it only had 13 burials. After 25 years it had nearly 30,000. Over its history, over 1,000,000 people have been buried there.
Père Lachaise holds a special place for me. In doing my research for my Masters research paper, I came across so many articles and books about this cemetery that I knew if I ever made it to France that I would have to go there. And sure enough, on my second day in Paris, which was a rainy one, I decided to go there and took some of the best photographs I ever taken in a cemetery (before or since). I was just in awe of the tombs and the statues – it was unlike anything I had seen in Canada, even the large garden cemetery in Toronto (Mount Pleasant) was a pale shadow to this fully formed cemetery. In my two years in France I visited the cemetery a few more times, and I knew that on my return to Paris this time around that it would be at the top of my cemetery re-visits.
It’s funny, no matter how many times I go there, I always go the same way I did the first time I went there, which is almost immediately to the left (most visitors go straight, as that leads them pretty much to Jim Morrison’s grave). My favourite angel is right near the main entrance, she is kneeling in prayer, and I always like to photograph her from behind, unlike most statues. Unfortunately, this time around I noticed that she had broken fingers, which I think might be a new development. (edit: maybe not. Looking at an old photograph of that statue it does look like her fingers have been broken for some time. Maybe that’s why I always photograph her from the back).
Père Lachaise is big – 44 hectares/110 acres. Bring your good walking shoes! It’s also hilly in some sections, so there can be quite a bit of up and down climbing. Like many other cemeteries with this type of geography, this type of layering of tombs and gravestones makes for a much more visually interesting cemetery. It’s the sections on the outer edges of the cemetery that can be quite flat, but there are plenty of interesting tombs to look at no matter where you go. Of course, there are a lot of very famous people buried here, and most tourists stick to the map in search of their tombs. But for me, I just like to wander and let my eyes lead me to what I think are interesting sections. It’s kind of like the Louvre – you’ll never see everything in one day, so other than a list of must-sees, I think the best philosophy is to wander and see what you come across.
To that end, there are a few famous graves that I always like to revisit. The first is that Victor Noir, a journalist who got shot dead (as a second) at a duel. The sculptor’s rendition of Noir was that at the moment of his death, and its very realistic with his top hat thrown just past his hands, the bullet hole in his chest, and (according to a guide I eavesdropped on), the post-mortem erection in his pants. I don’t know if the last is true, but there is a significant fold there, which is quite shiny (as are the tips of his boots and parts of his face) that are rubbed by many a (I’m assuming) female visitor.
Another favourite are of two “martyrs of science“, balloonists Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel. They (and a third balloonist, who survived) were trying to push the limits of how far they could take their hot-air balloon when they fell unconscious and the balloon eventually fell back to earth, killing the two of them. Their grave has a statue of the two of them lying side-by-side, holding hands, and I think it is a really touching memorial to two friends who died together.
You know, when you spend a lot of time in cemeteries, you can’t help but think about what will happen when your own time will come to an end – I’m no different, but I have not gone as far as Andre Chabot, a photographer who’s not dead yet. He has photographed 700(!) cemeteries and has many photographs of them (over 195,000 – which works out to about 279 pictures per cemetery). It’s quite an accomplishment – I probably have around 30 to my credit, and at best doubt I’ll ever see more than 100!). Anyway, his tomb features a large camera, which I thought was pretty cool. There’s even a QR code on the outside that takes you to a link (in French and English) about the creations he has in the cemetery.
Père Lachaise is definitely a cemetery you can come back to again and again, as you’ll always find something new you missed the last time. I think there’s a good reason why it ranks so highly in “best of” lists, and yet, despite its popularity, its still a really nice place to visit.
Quality of Monuments: Great. There are a lot of tombs, mausoleums, and crypts here, and quite a number feature interesting statues – including some more modern burials. Most of the statues are stone, but there are also some bronze and marble ones too.
Cemetery Grounds: Extensive. As mentioned earlier, it’s the largest cemetery within the city. It does still take burials (only if you lived or died in Paris) but there’s a waiting list as burial sites are few and far between. The cemetery is hilly in some sections and flat in others, so you may spend some time walking up and down slopes/stairs. The grounds are very nicely maintained – in fact when I was there I saw a lot of leaf-blowing/tomb washing going on (same at Montmartre), especially in sections where there were newer graves. Almost all of the main paths are cobblestones, which can be a bit dicey to walk on sometimes (which I’m sure is worse when wet). Going a few metres into a section usually will bring you to a nice path that’s much easier to walk on.
Visitors: Quite a few. This is one cemetery where tourists and other visitors outnumber mourners. Still, there are some green areas and I saw quite a number of families with children out and about as well.
Photographer notes: In many sections of the cemetery the graves are quite tightly packed, making it sometimes difficult to get the shot that you want. In addition, some statues are very high up, on top of a tomb that’s on top of a hill – for short little me with no zooms, those proved impossible to get any good shots of. Lighting changes a lot depending on the time of day, and I really prefer this cemetery in flat light which illuminates the statues nicely.
Cemetery: Cimetière du Père–Lachaise
Location: 20th arrondissement, Boulevard de Ménilmontant. You can take the metro to the Père Lachaise, Philippe-Auguste, or Gambetta, and walk from any of those stops.