Père Lachaise – if only the Parisian tombstones could talk…

Père Lachaise – if only the Parisian tombstones could talk…

One of the greatest pleasures in Paris is, undoubtedly, strolling in the parks and gardens spread around the City of Lights. But there are more “gardens” in Paris, and in them, by the oak trees and benches, also stand unique statues that you can’t find anywhere else. These are the cemeteries of the City of Lights, which have long ago ceased to be considered places dealing with sadness and grief, and have become tourist attractions that combine calmness, beauty, and, of course, many celebrities. And speaking of famous people, there is no cemetery in Paris that compete with Père Lachaise when it comes to the amount of celebrities buried in it. Today we’ll tell the story of this beautiful cemetery.

When the dead wandered the streets of Paris

Until the end of the 18th century, the Parisians had buried their dead in cemeteries adjacent to the many churches, which were built in the city in the medieval ages and the renaissance. The most famous cemetery in Paris at that time was the one located next to “The Innocents” church, but also next to the biggest wholesale market of Paris (Les Halles). The proximity to the market created quite a hygiene problem, since during flood times, the dead that were buried last and closest to the face of the ground started to float and “wander” between the fruit and vegetable stands. During the 18th century, the situation became constantly worse, and due to excess burial, so to speak, the dead, who were crammed further and further down the mass graves, started “pushing” the walls of the cellars in the houses close to the cemeteries. And so, as the Parisians were headed to their cellar for a good bottle of wine to go with their meal, they were surprised by greetings from the world beyond, in the form of an anonymous hand popping out of their wall, for example.

“The Innocents” cemetery. A painting from the year 1550. Source: Wikipedia

As a result of the density in the cemeteries of central Paris, it was decided in the 1880s to transfer the bones of the dead from the cemeteries in the center of the city to several abandoned mined in the southern part of Paris, and so were created the famous Catacombs. At the same time, it was decided to establish four cemeteries outside the city walls, which will provide the burial needs for the City of Lights. The new cemeteries, which were initially established in the beginning of the 19th century, are the Montmartre cemetery in the north, Montparnasse cemetery in the south, and in the east it was decided to establish the cemetery that will later become the most famous of them all – Père Lachaise.

Before we continue: A French cabaret - A perfect way to end a perfect day in Paris

Bring us the celebrities! Or: how did Père Lachaise become the most famous cemetery in Paris?

The cemetery was named after the priest (Father, or Père in French) François de la Chaise (1624-1709), who was Louis XIV’s confessor. Father de la Chaise has an estate in the area where the cemetery currently resides. The estate was built in 1682, and was purchased by the city of Paris in 1804. The architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart (1739-1813) was in charge of designing the cemetery, and Napoleon was so pleased with the design of Père Lachaise, that we asked him to design yet another cemetery, in which many Parisians’ savings were buried. I refer, of course, to the Parisian Stock Exchange (Bourse), which is located in the 2nd Arrondissement.

On the right: Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery's architect. On the left: Father de la Chaise, after whom the cemetery was named. Source: Wikipedia
On the right: Alexandre Brongniart, the cemetery’s architect. On the left: Father de la Chaise, after whom the cemetery was named. Source: Wikipedia

However, despite its successful architectural design, initially Père Lachaise cemetery was a financial failure, and couldn’t attract any “clients”. There were two main reasons for that: the first was that for an unclear reason, the Church has decided not to sanctify the cemetery’s ground using Holy Water, which bothered quite a few religious people in Paris (the Jews didn’t care, though, and for that reason many Jews, as well as people of other religions, are buried in Père Lachaise to this day). The second reason was its location in the eastern part of Paris, which was poor and highly unfashionable, and so the wealthy and rich people who lived in the western part of Paris preferred to be buried in other cemeteries (such as Passy cemetery, in the 16th Arrondissement).

אחת השדרות המקסימות בפר לאשז שעוצבו על ידי ברוניאר.
One of the charming avenues in Père Lachaise, designed by Brongniart.

Soon enough, the cemetery’s managers realized that if people wouldn’t want to be buried there, all the great investment will simply go to waste, and therefore they decided to use a marketing trick taken from the real-estate world. Any contractor knows that a great way to publish the luxurious project they’re building is by giving an apartment to a famous actor, or at least a reality-show winner, so why not do the same with a cemetery? Since no living celebrity was willing to be buried there (and not while they were still alive, in any case), the managers decided to acquire dead celebrities, since they were not expected to express any objection to being transferred by force to their “new accommodations”. And so, in 1804, in a highly publicised ceremony, the remains of Molière and La Fontaine were buried in Père Lachaise. In 1817, they received reinforcements in the form of the remains of Abelard and Héloïse, the mythical pair of lovers from the middle-ages.

And indeed, the marketing strategy worked: in 1806 the cemetery contained 86 graves, in 1812 it had 833 graves, and in 1830 it contained 33,000 graves! As a result, the cemetery has grown and had to be expanded 5 times between the years 1824 and 1851, until it reached an area of 439,000 square meters, and contained about 70,000 graves. Naturally, over the years, many additional celebrities were also buried in the cemeteries, among them Édith Piaf, Honoré de Balzac, Jim Morrison, and many others. You can say that Parisians (and non-Parisians too) are just dying to be in Père Lachaise!

The Francophile tours Père Lachaise with Thierry Le Roi

One of the biggest problems of anyone who wants to visit Père Lachaise is the vast richness of celebrities’ graves, or even “merely” beautiful graves, or ones with special stories behind them. One single visit (or even dozens of them) in this cemetery is not nearly enough to absorb the abundance of stories it has to offer. And this is exactly why you need Thierry Le Roi!

תיירי לרואה - מדריך התיירים הטוב ביותר של פר לשז
Thierry Le Roi – the best tour guide in Père Lachaise

I heard about Père Lachaise from a friend of mine, an anonymous Francophile himself, who declared that if I really want to discover Père Lachaise, I have to do it only with Thierry. When I met him at the cemetery gate I saw an impressive man, smartly dressed and with a great sense of humour – the ideal partner for a cemetery tour! Thierry has been exploring the cemeteries of Paris for many years, and knows almost each and every grave, whether it belongs to an anonymous person or a famous one. We walked among the graves for several hours, and I discovered a man with incredible knowledge, who can improvise routes between the thousands of graves, to suite the exact interests of those who walk beside him.

When I told Thierry that I am Israeli, he immediately took me to see the grave of the terrorist Mahmoud Hamchari, one of those responsible for the massacre of the Israeli delegation of athletes in Munich, who was eliminated by the Mossad in 1973. Apparently, Hamchari’s neighbor was no less than the famous Jewish author Marcel Proust, and both of them had black marble tombstones. One day, a few people tried to take vengeance on Hamchari’s grave and memory, but since they didn’t ask Thierry Le Roi nor consulted with him, they accidentally blew up Proust’s innocent tombstone.

From there we continued to wander around the paths of this enormous cemetery, and we visited famous graves, such as the one of Théodore Géricault or Victor Noir, but also less famous graves, each with its own fascinating story to tell. Thierry even outdid himself, and took me to see two graves of people who are still alive, but thought, “hey, why wait?” and decided to prepare their future eternal accommodation while they still walk this Earth. The first built himself a small pyramid, to which he sometimes enters for a few hours (you can imagine the reaction of the cemetery’s visitors when the door to the pyramid opens and the person comes out of it). The second grave belongs to a photographer, and in it resides a huge statue of his favourite camera, and even a QR code leading to a website that tells his life story.

קברו של הצלם שעדיין חי איתנו.
The tomb of the photographer who still lives among us.

A few hours later, I finished my tour with Thierry with a nice batch of new stories to be told in the future, not to mention a huge amount of adoration for this man, who decided to dedicate his life to the stories of the dead. Needless to say, I highly recommend Thierry, and if you like, you can book your tour through his website. One last thing before we go – Theirry is a French speaker, and so, in order to enjoy and benefit from his tours, you have to have to speak this language in a reasonable level. If you don’t know French at all or well enough, you can also book the tour in English. This will be conducted by a different guide, but Thierry promises that he is just as good, and that you’d adore him too by the end of the tour.

Tourist information – Père Lachaise

Entrance: Rue du Repos 16, 75020 Paris. Metro station: Père Lachaise (line 2 and 3).

Opening days: all week.

Opening hours: 8:00-18:00 every day, except for Saturdays, when the cemetery opens at 8:30, and Sundays, when it opens at 9:00.

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