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Pere Lachaise Cemetery Guide

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Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

paris city tour guide

pere lachaise tombgraves at pere lachaise, parisAs grandiose as Pere Lachaise may be, it is also testimony to the egos of the rich and famous, extending and competing these egos even when their lives cease to be. The late French songwriter Georges Brassens succinctly summed it up, “People had their hearts set to die higher than their asses”. But if it were not for these dead, we would be deprived of the romantic, aesthetical and highly varied beauty that makes up the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Did I also mention The Door’s frontman Jim Morrison was buried here?!

I shan’t bemoan the fact too strongly, but as a significant number of tourists dart off in search of Mr. Mojo Risin' (which incidentally can take a bit of finding), many others study the entrance map where all manner of famous author, poet, painter, politician and war hero is buried. Take note that the cemetery divisions do not seem to make sense to the logically minded, and even upon finding the division and ‘street’ name, you will still need to scour the area to find graves of interest. A map is recommended, but a random stroll and the spontaneity of coming up across a familiar name is more entertaining and romantic, at least in my experience.

 

History of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Pere Lachaise derived its name from François d'Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709), a French Jesuit with considerable influence, and confessor of Louis XIV after 1675. In the latter part of the 18th century, cemeteries were still banned from Paris due to the fear of disease from fetid corpses, and so most bodies were taken down below into the catacombs (a small part of which is open to the public, a subject for a future tour guide on this website). It wasn’t until 1804 that Napoléon Bonaparte established Pere Lachaise, which was a fair distance away from the hustle and bustle of the city and was somewhat smaller back in the day.

paris city guide, pere lachaise

 

tombs, sepulchre, pere lachaise cemetery parispere lachaise cemeteryThere are several entrances into the cemetery, which covers 44 hectares (roughly 109 acres), but I have always approached it from the metro stop named ‘Pere Lachaise’ for the sake of simplicity, but you could also try Philippe Auguste or Gambetta. The ‘Pere Lachaise’ station intersects between line 2 and 3, so you can catch either line depending where you are coming from. When you emerge from the dimmed light of the subterranean Parisian metro service, and into a temporarily eye squinting sunshine (I’m an optimist) swinging your head left and right to take in your surroundings, you will notice a distinct lack of cemetery. If you have indeed come up from Pere Lachaise metro, you will need to tilt your head a few degrees skyward, as the cemetery sits aloft a long, high wall which forms the perimeter along this edge. Students constructed the wall to turn the cemetery into a fortress during the battles of 1814. Entry is free, and there is a narrow arched walkway just over the road, which takes you up some steps and into the graveyard. Most likely somebody will be standing outside the entrance selling maps, so if you are eager to see some specific graves, I would strongly advise buying one. Something like “Je voudrais un guide touristique” should do it, or just point and hold out some coins.

 

pere lachaise cemetery

 

pere lachaise cemetery, autumnpere lachaise cemeteryThe cemetery is one that can really be visited at any time of the year, but catch it on a bright sunny spring or crisp autumn day and the cemetery comes to life in a myriad of light and shadow. You can walk leisurely down the straight avenues, deviate down the less frequented serpentine paths, or take the adventurous road less travelled, and venture in and out between sepulchres and tombstones. You’re guaranteed to see something unique with each turn of the head, from copper stained monuments, rain eroded angels, eery supernatural creatures to gothic gated sepulchres.

OSCAR WILDE
pere lachaise cemetery, oscar wilde
Oscar Wilde was originally buried in the Bagneaux cemetery, enshrouded in quicklime to try and reduce the cadaver to bones in a short space of time, and was transported to Pere Lachaise a couple of years later. American born sculptor, Sir Jacob Epstein, created and sculpted the design for Oscar Wilde’s current resting place. It was apparently vandalised some years ago, when the penis was broken off, and was reported to have been used as a paperweight by the superintendent of the cemetery. I do not know how much validity there is to the story, as not much of a protrusion is visible from the original photographs of the sculpture when brand new.
Alongside the graffiti, you may notice a plethora of lipstick kisses plastered over the lower parts of the tomb – this is a tradition carried out by Wilde’s admirers.
oscar wilde, pere lachaise cemetery
oscar wilde, pere lachaise cemetery

JIM MORRISON

jim morrison, pere lachaise cemeteryJim Douglas Morrison

Jim Morrison’s very modest grave tends to attract a lot of attention with the tourists. As a big admirer of The Doors, I admit to seeking it out myself, trying to rely on the haze of rising smoke and crowds of strange people (people are strange). Even so, you need to have your eyes peeled as it isn’t immediately obvious and is slightly tucked away from the main path. There’s usually a security guy on watch, as the grave is subject to abuse, and is cordoned off by metal barriers. You’ll probably find lots of junk and cigarettes littered over the grave, along with flowers and tributes.
Original witnesses to Morrison’s burial said it was a piteous affair, lasting all of ten minutes, with no priest or prayer. His headstone bears a Greek expression erected by his parents’ “KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY” which was intended to mean ‘faithful to his own spirit’, although translates more literally along the lines of ‘towards his own demon’.

 

Victor Noir (Yvan Salman)

pere lachaise cemetery, victor noirpere lachaise cemeteryNoir’s sculpture depicts a noticeable protuberance around the upper trouser department, and as a result has fallen damage to excessive rubbing from female visitors (see photo on the left). For a time a fence was erected to prevent more damage around the groin, but protests had this removed. A woman who slips a flower into the upturned hat and kisses the lips of the statue is reported to find a husband by the end of the year. Lewd acts or indecent rubbing may however result in prosecution!
In life Victor Noir was a journalist, who was killed by Pierre Bonaparte (great nephew of the emperor Napoleon) in a duel.

 

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pere lachaise cemetery, paris city guide
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