Walking Among the Dead at Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Death is not the end for the residents of Père Lachaise in Paris. Their tombs and graves are gawked at every day by hundreds of camera-touting tourists seeking the cemetery’s famous and not-so-famous inhabitants.

The cemetery was built in 1804 as the city ran out of room for new graves within its limits. It was named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in a house near the cemetery land.

At the time, the locals considered the cemetery too far from the city. Père Lachaise only had 13 graves its first year. However, administrators devised a plan and, with great fanfare, transferred the remains of Jean de La Fontaine (fabulist) and Molière (playwright), two of Paris’s most famous artists, to Père Lachaise.

The strategy worked, and people clamored to be interred with the cemetery’s famous new residents. Today, there are over a million people buried here, and it’s still an active cemetery, though to be buried here, you have to have lived or died in Paris.

Waking up on a bright beautiful day, I headed to the cemetery to marvel at the graves, mausoleums, and sepulchers of the dead. While a rainy day may have been more apropos, I welcomed the sun (I lacked an umbrella).

Humans have always had a fascination with death—we’ve been writing, singing, and pondering about it for ages. We dedicate much of our lives to thinking about that eternal question—“What comes next?” So it doesn’t surprise me that cemeteries become tourist attractions. To me, walking among the dead is both uncomfortable and interesting at the same time.

I tend to feel uncomfortable because I think, “Here we are, gawking at the graves of the dead like they’re some museum exhibit to be ogled.” The dead become a sideshow as people exclaim, “Hey look, I have a picture of Jim Morrison’s grave! Yay!” Maybe it’s because we want to get close to the famous people we could never get close to in life. I don’t know, but whatever the reason, as I snap a dozen photos of Édith Piaf’s grave, I know I’m guilty of it, too.

But more than being uncomfortable, I’m always interested in the people around me. Who were they? What lives did they lead? Were they happy? Sad? Were they loved, lost souls, artists, hypochondriacs? I like to imagine them going through the ups and downs of life we all face or being witnesses to a historical event we now dissect in history books.

It’s easy to get lost amongst the giant crypts and trees. Covering 110 acres, the cemetery rises along a hill, with the older center a mishmash of winding streets and long-worn-out names and the newer tombs laid out in perfect city blocks. The moss-covered tombs and tree-lined cobblestone streets hide the sounds of the city. All that remains are your footsteps and the squawks from crows who remind you that on this day of life, death is all around.

Most visitors are drawn to the cemetery by the famous people buried here—Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Honoré de Balzac, Molière, Chopin, Max Ernst, and others. They make a break for these graves while leaving the rest of the dead (and living) undisturbed.

I wandered through the graves, struck by the silence and the enormity of the tombs. Many of the mausoleums seem fit for kings and are spectacularly decorated with statues, art, and sculptures depicting angels and scenes of mourning. These people wanted to be remembered. As I wandered around, I found a contrast to the tombs of the celebrities, who seemed to want the opposite. Celebrity graves were often the simplest, as if they no longer wanted in death the spotlight they had in life.

I spent hours visiting the cemetery, often sitting in silence, reflecting on those buried around me. Visiting the graves of so many people that I admire made me feel oddly connected to them. I paid my respects and thanked them for the influence they’ve had in my life. I only hope I’ll accomplish half of what they did in their lives.

Directions: The best way to get here is to take the no. 2 or no. 3 line and get off at the “Pere-Lachaise” stop.

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  1. Laura

    Great post! I’ve reading you for a while and you inspired me to travel this summer. Enjoy this beautiful city, I’ve been living here for almost a year and I love it

  2. I enjoy visiting a cemetery – as odd a that sounds! The cemetery in Montreal was always one of my favourite places to stroll when I wanted a bit of peace but not having to leave the heart of the city – only in broad daylight though! Like you I love to wonder about the lives of the people resting there. It is odd how people want to see the graves of celebrities. I’m sure I would snap a photo or two though as well!

  3. I always enjoy visiting the ‘dead end of town’ when travelling – head stones often tell some fascinating stories! Been to Pere Lachaise and I did enjoy walking around there to escape the hustle of Paris.

  4. Kenneth Stern

    One correction, if I may. Rossini is actually buried in Florence. There is, I recall from a visit years ago, a monument to the great composer Bellini, but he was transferred to Catania. Both men had pictures taken of them when exhumed. Rossini was unrecognizable, but Bellini’s face and hair was still intact, and he looks exactly like the best lithographs of him. Sorry to be a bit goulish. Keep on traveling; I have been doing so since I was 18.

  5. I have to say I disagree. The dead are not a sideshow, they are remembered by the people who visit them. I read the epitaghs and wonder about what their life was like. If I was buried I would hope that people would visit my grave site. I love visiting cemeteries when I travel, it gives you an insight into the culture of the country and I find them reflective and quite beautiful.

  6. madeleine zember

    Very different article. Enjoyed it. The old Jewish cemetery in Prague is another one. When people go the cemeteries usually it is out of duty and when they are sad so they do not pay attention to little details.
    In Pinelawn, the cemetery in Long Island NY, the Jewish section is divided into streets which are named after many important figures and places that one can learn a lot of history from them.

  7. I love visiting cemeteries. It’s a fascinating reminder that people don’t stop being people just because they’re dead. Mausoleums reflect the people who reside in them, and it’s fun to imagine those people when they were alive. I always love the gaudy and ostentatious ones the best, I imagine the person in them would have been quite a character!

    I haven’t been to Pere Lachaise, but I love the Cimiterio Monumentale in Milan and the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

  8. Gingko

    I would also add 2 cemeteries in Italy as well to this list. Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa,Italy and Cemitero Monumentale in Milan, Italy. Both have fantastic sculpture to be enjoyed by the living an grace the memory of the dead.

  9. I spent my halloween birthday there a few years ago. I was still the best birthday yet being amongst all the history, architecture and the beautiful grounds. Great pictures!

  10. I too loved Père Lachaise. It is itself a monument to art, poetry, music, letters, courage, love, and the best in humanity. Those graves are there to inspire us who came along later to lead better lives.

    I found a little country cemetery once whose massive entry gates were framed with the words “as you are, so once were we” and then on the exit gate “as we are, so shall you be”.
    That quotation made me think that the dead ask only to be remembered and to have a continuing voice. Because of that, I don’t think it’s disrespectful to wander and wonder there unless one is intentionally dishonoring a memory or desecrating the place.

  11. I’m really glad you posted this, I love graveyards. And not because I have some morbid fascination, in fact I actually don’t see it as morbid at all. Those people had stories, like you said they had the same ups and downs, the same adventures and fears as us, and here in their final resting place their stories live on. I love Highgate Cemetery in London, I found it beautiful and peaceful. But I’m off to Paris in a couple of weeks so I’ll be adding this one to my list of to-do’s 😉

  12. I’ve never been to Pere Lachaise but I love visiting cemeteries and going “grave hunting”. There’s beauty in death as I sit on a bench and ponder how life’s so fleeting. My favorite cemeteries so far has been the one in Austria (Zentralfriedhof) with all the famous composers together, the one in NYC (Greenwood), and Buenos Aires (Recoleta) where one can find some stunning mausoleums as well as Evita’s grave.

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