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Stories from the Père Lachaise cemetery

lachaise-1.jpgWe walk through the main entrance on the boulevard Ménilmontant and find ourselves in the world of stories, anecdotes and history of Paris, told by the stones of the Père Lachaise cemetery. Our guide Axelle from the Parisian blog Paris ZigZag takes us through the stories of the graves and monuments to various periods of the past. There are 70,000 tombs and the Père Lachaise cemetery is the most visited cemetery in the world. Many tombs have become the sites of cults and traditions. 

Before the 18th century each Parisian parish had its cemetery. Before the French revolution the quarter „Halles“ had the cemetery „Cimètiere des Innocents“.  For the poor and homeless people the „Fausse commune“ was created. This was a big „foss“, to which were buried the bodies of people who could pay neither funeral nor a tomb.  In Paris the hygiene around the cemeteries was so bad that at the end of the 18th century it was decided to move the remains from the cemeteries to the catacombs. It was also decided to build the cemeteries outside the city center. As a consequence of these changes in Paris there were built the cemeteries Montparnasse, Montmartre and Père Lachaise. The Père Lachaise cemetery was initially called „Eastern cemetery“. However, Parisians found this name too administrative and so they adapted the name of Père-Lachaise. „Father Lachaise » refers to François d’Aix de la Chaise (1624-1709), a Jesuit who was a confessor of Louis XIV.  

lachaise-2.jpgThe Père Lachaise cemetery was opened in 1804. At that time it was far away from its today fame. The cemetery was for the Parisians too far away, nobody wanted to be buried here and so a „marketing“ to attract the souls was launched. Some graves of the famous personalities were moved here, such as the tombs of Molière and La Fontaine. As soon as they were moved, the number of people who wanted to be buried here considerably increased (from 300 to 3000 per year). 

Our first stop is the grave of the lovers Héloise and Abelard, reminding us the story of their love in the 12th century. Monk Abelard was one of the biggest intellectuals of his time, a philosopher and teologist, and Héloise was from a monastery. Since their love was fobridden, they ran away to the French Brittany and had secretly a child. Later they were separated and for the whole life they wrote letters to each other. Finally they were buried together, but some years later one abbot separated them again. Two centuries later they were put together again. In 1817 they were moved to the Père Lachaise cemetery with the aim to attract people so they want to be buried here. Today the lovers from all over the world come to see this tomb. 

lachaise-3.jpgOur next stop is the tomb of a humourist Pierre Deproges. He died at the age of 49 and he wanted his ashes to be spread over the tomb of the composer Petruschiani. It was forbidden to spread the ashes on the tomb of someone else and so the family decided to make a vegetal tomb and put the Deproges‘ ashes on it and the wind blew it to the tomb of the composer. 

Frédéric Chopin died also very young, as 25 years old because of a tuberculosis. He loved the flowers and his tomb is always full of flowers. A legend says that his heart is in Poland in one church in Warsaw. By the Chopin’s tomb with a statue of a musical muse crying over the broken lute there is a man arranging flowers and he interrupts our guided tour with a strong Slavic accent (maybe Polish?), saying that when he was 23 years old he used to come twice a week to take care of the tomb. At that time the statue was white and look at it now, it is a tragedy. 

We walk among the tombs by the noisy ravens croaking, making echoes in the whole cemetery. A girl walking by us mentions that she likes the ravens atmosphere of the cemeteries. 

lachaise-4.jpgThe guide stops us by the tomb of the painter Théodore Géricoult. He died after falling down from a horse, but there are also stories that he died because he was making too much love. His statue has a lying shape, probably with the purpose to express the idea that he could not walk at the end of his life. This painter was curious also because of the fact that he was not able to paint the feet and that’s why people at his paintings have the feet wrapped in the tissues. 

The next stop looks surrealistic. The tomb with the inscription „La mémoire Necropolitaine“ is a tomb of a living person Alain Chabot, an etnologist who travels all over the world and studies the cemeteries and is interested in the funeral rites and traditions. His tomb has a code which refers to his internet website. Axelle explains to us the conditions of buying the place of the tomb at this cemetery. The condition is to live or die in Paris, the tombs must be maintained and are bought for 10, 30, 50 years or eternity. The price of the place for 10 years is 750 euro, for 50 years it is 4000 euro. 

During the two hours tour of the cemetery our guide is stopped by at least five persons asking her what is the direction to get to the tomb of Jim Morrison. The tomb of the rebel singer of The Doors is the most visited tomb of the cemetery. The singer who died from a heroin overdose has remained a symbol of the youth rebelion. By his tomb there is a tree the trunk of which is covered with a bambus wood because people started to stick the chewing-gums on the tree. As the locks on the Pont des Arts bridge confirm for some people their love, the chewing-gums by the tomb of Jim Morrison are for some people an expression of a pieta. Initially, 35 years ago, there was a bust of Jim Morrison on his tomb. A man with a picture approaches us and gives the photo as a gift to our guide. He explains that he lives closes to the cemetery and he took the picture himself. First a nose was stolen from the bust, then the beard and then the damaged bust was moved to the Conservatory. 

lachaise-5.jpgThe fanciest tomb that we see during our visit is the tomb of the Russian countess Demidoff, who died in 1818. Her husband was an influential merchant and industrialist. The tomb is located on a hill, the countess wished to have a view on the whole Paris. On the tomb there are statues and reliefs of wolf heads and polecats. 

An obligatory stop are the tombs of Molière and La Fontaine. They died 150 years before opening the Père Lachaise cemetery, they could not get confessed, nobody could come to their funerals. The priest from the St Eustache parish was merciful and buried them in his parish. 

The tomb of the scientist Parmentier is an interesting place. Around the tomb there are potatoes spread all over and small flowers planted. He lived in the 18th century and devoted all his life to the research how to feed the inhabitants of Paris and avoid the famine. He planted potatoes on Champs de Mars and this way helped the Parisians to get nurished. And that’s why even today people bring potatoes to his grave and the pharmaceutical companies take care of it. 

Under the tomb in a shape of a Celtic menhir and a lot of flowers there rests Allan Kardec – a professor from the 19th century who was interested in parallel worlds, unvisible world, spirituality and noctambulism. „To be born, die, be born again and continue to progress. That’s the law.“ Nowadays in Brazil there are more than 6 million people who honour him. The ghost Zephir revealed to him that in the second life he will be in the world of the Celts and that’s why his tomb is in the shape of menhir. 

lachaise-6.jpgA destiny of the journalist from the 19th century, Victor Noir was sad. He died when he was 21 years old, being a messenger to the prince Bonaparte who killed him without any reason. This event was a last drop in the full glass, an uprising started which lead to the Parisian Commune. During the Parisian Commune there were fights also in the Père Lachaise cemetery, since the cemetery was built on a hill. More than 200 000 people came to the funeral of Victor Noir. The statue on his tomb is very „masculine“, it represents his youth, his strength. Victor Noir was about to get married when he died. Many women who come to the tomb, sit on the statue, a rite which is supposed to bring them a good lover within a year. And so the statue of Victor Noir has become a toucing place such as Dalida’s breast on Montmartre or the foot of Montaigne by Sorbonne. 

The last stop is the tomb and grave of Irish writer Oscar Wilde whom we know especially thanks to his novel „Portrait of Dorian Gray“. In his time Oscar Wilde was quite an outsider because of his homosexuality. That’s why he left to France where he was accepted a little better. He died in Paris, alone, without any money, because of a meningitis. He was buried in the cemetery in Bagneux in a „6th class“, what was the last class before „fausse commune“ – a foss of poverty. The tomb was inspired by his poem „Sfinx“, the sfinx statue has the face of Oscar Wilde. On the stone by his head there are prints of kisses, lipsticks. Without any reason, just because once someone kissed the stone and the others thought that it was a rite and started to kiss the stone as well. 

Who said that the cemeteries are dead.... 

Paristep 

Source of information: guide Axelle from the blog ParisZigZag

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