Père Lachaise Cemetery, 20 th arrondissement, Paris

Victor Noir

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Situated in the 20th arrondissment Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris, covering 43 hectares or 105 acres and opened in 1804, in the same week as Napoleon's coronation. The site once belonged to Louis XIV's confessor, Pere Lachaise - hence the name.

It is a lovely place for a walk as there are nice gardens, views and wonderful statues and sculptures, and it is also a place of pilgrimage as all the best people are buried here. Millions of people visit this cemetery every year, and there are maps for sale showing the locations of the tombs of the famous and infamous.

On the right you can see the very impressive main entrance. Père Lachaise was one of three great cemeteries that were established by Napoleonic decree after a series of rather grisly occurrences.

Previous to the establishment of these cemeteries the cemeteries within the city walls had become greatly overcrowded. The one in Les Halles, called the Cemitiere des Innocents where the fountain stands, occupying less than a hectare. Large open graves were dug disinterring previous occupants, and one night a poor shoemaker fell into one of these and died. The stench around the area was terrible.

Then a few years later, in 1786, the walls of some cellars around this graveyard collapsed and the contents of the graves flowed into them killing a number of occupants. It was decided that something had to be done. The Les Halles cemetery was closed and for months carts loaded with the disinterred remains dug from the area slowly made their way to the catacombs in the 14th. All this took place at night so as no to upset the populace.

Père Lachaise entrance
Père Lachaise in autumn

However it was not long before space in the catacombs was running out and Père Lachaise was opened. The grislyness and gore didn't end there though, oh no, this is Paris after all, and they will have their revolutions.

Cossacks in Pere Lachaise

In 1814 the Cossacks camped in it after overthrowing the Parisian students who had tried to hold out on the hill. The Cossacks cut down many of the trees for firewood.

Communards in Pere Lachaise

Then in 1871 the Communards set up their last artillery batteries and settled down to fight to the death among the graves. They held out against the government troops for a week, but were finally overcome around Balzac's tomb. The next morning 147 Communards were lined up against the outside wall and shot. But enough of all this, to the dead and their tombs, as that's what we're here for.

There are many famous people buried here, but for me many of the most interesting graves are of people unknown, to me, at least. So we'll start with them first.

I am very fond of the gentleman on the left, in a quiet part of the graveyard he continues to read, even in death. All bookworms must envy him.

And on the right the beautiful angel stands in a lovely tree-covered setting. The occupants of the grave were/are, no doubt, sadly missed by friends and relatives. However I'm sure they never dreamed that in death their grave would be visited, admired and photographed by countless strangers.

These two tombs are very different, the one above being a large family tomb, while the one on the right is much smaller, but is still a family tomb. The difference doesn't end there. The one above is well-cared for, while the one on the left is neglected. But it has been recognised for its beauty and is now a national monument. It lies in the oldest part of the cemetery where many of the stones are sadly neglected.
Père Lachaise, Chopin's grave

Frédéric Chopin's tomb

A little further along from the lady above right lies one of the most famous tombs in the whole cemetery, that of Frédéric Chopin, left and right.

This tomb is always covered in flowers and is one of the first places most Poles come when they visit Paris. Chopin was Polish, and indeed his heart has been returned to his native country.

The grave also has another function, that of letterbox! A few of the graves in the cemetery are used for this, it is a clandestine method for lovers to keep in touch. Will this practice now cease with the preponderance of mobile phones? Chopin rests in good company, Rossini, Bellini and Cherubini are all nearby.

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Père Lachaise, Chopin's grave
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