Cities of the Dead: Père Lachaise Cemetery (Paris, France)

Spring along the streets of Pere Lachais in Paris, France (2007, public domain).

Spring along the streets of Père Lachais in Paris, France (2007, public domain).

 

Archaeologists. Composers. Mathematicians. Physicians and scientists. Painters, politicians, generals, and heroes of the Resistance. The culturally popular of the moment laid to rest within footsteps of the greatest not just of their respective generations, but of planetary history – Chopin. Molière. Pissarro. Proust. Sarah Bernhardt. Gertrude Stein. Oscar Wilde. Maria Callas, Edith Piaf and Isadora Duncan. And, yes, Jim Morrison of the Doors.

They are all here in France at Père Lachaise – the most sumptuous repast of remembrance on earth. Situated in the arrondissement de Ménilmontant of Paris, this famed, 110-acre, French garden cemetery opened the gates for its first permanent resident in 1804. A Neoclassical funeral chapel was added in 1823, followed by a Neo-Byzantine crematorium and columbarium in 1894.

By 1830, the nascent necropolis housed the remains of more than 33,000 dead – a number that, by the year 2012, had grown to more than a million – men, women and children who made their way to their eternal rest via above-ground entombment, below-ground burial, cremation, or other forms of interment, according to reports by Parisian officials.

As a result, this city of the dead has, like the City of Light in which it is located, been divided and subdivided itself over the years into arrondissements (districts) and streets – several of which bear the names of its most famous permanent residents.

French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat rests at his family's mausoleum at Pere Lachais in Paris, France (2011, public domain).

Georges Seurat rests at his family’s mausoleum at Père Lachais in Paris, France (2011, public domain).

Visitors seeking cultural inspiration often head for the junction of Chemin d’Ornano and the Avenue des Peupliers in the cemetery’s 66th arrondissement to leave flowers for French Neo-Impressionist icon Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Entombed a few steps away from that intersection in the Famille A. C. Seurat mausoleum, he had already left his mark on the art world through his visionary brushstrokes when felled by disease (most likely diphtheria) in his early thirties. One of his best-loved works, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, employed the precision dotting of pointillism to capture the breathtaking effect of light on the natural world in its depiction of the simple pleasures of Parisians relaxing at an island park on the Seine.

Trekking elsewhere along cobblestoned roads toward the Avenue des Accacias, history enthusiasts marvel at a simple obelisk and the man buried beneath it – Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832). An explorer-scholar who gained fame for his decipherment of hieroglyphics and other ancient forms of writing through studies of the Rosetta Stone, Philae obelisk, and texts from the temples at Abu Simbel, Champollion is revered today by many leading archaeologists as the Father of Egyptology. Like Georges Seurat, he also died young – just 41 when felled by a stroke following his return from an historic research tour of Egypt.

Circling a roundabout south of the cemetery’s 18th district to the grave of French statesman Casimir Perier (1777-1832), present day explorers branch off toward either the avenue bearing Perier’s name (Avenue Casimir Perier) or to the Chemin Lesseps. A stroll along the Chemin Lesseps offers views of both the crowd-favorite grave of Jim Morrison and the mausoleum of Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894), the French diplomat who became the developer of Egypt’s Suez Canal. Quite simply, he was the project manager who brought the governmental, banking and engineering minds of his day together to design and dredge the sea-level waterway which would ultimately link the Mediterranean to the Red Sea in 1869. It is still the shortest maritime route between the nations of Europe and those dotting the Indian and western Pacific oceans.

Skeletons, Ghosts and Ghouls, Robertson Mausoleum, Pere Lachais, Paris, France (2011, public domain).

Skeletons, ghosts and ghouls adorn the Robertson mausoleum at Père Lachais in Paris, France (2011, public domain).

But it is another walk – the journey along Avenue Casimir Perier – which will likely create the most indelible memories of all for chill-seeking visitors because it is here – near the intersection of this street and Chemin Serré – that the corporeal remains of necropolist Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763-1837) have been enshrined for all time.

Better known by the stage name “Robertson,” this Belgian physicist-balloonist turned the scaring to death of 19th century men and women into an art form when he invented the Fantoscope. When combined with ventriloquism, sulphurous vapors, a smoky concert hall and other technological innovations, this forerunner of the slide projector created imagery which so unnerved his audiences that they fled, petrified, into the night from his acclaimed horror shows which came to be known as phantasmagoria.

Skull with batwing, Robinson mausoleum, Pere Lachais, Paris, France (2011, public domain).

Skull with batwing detail, Robertson mausoleum, Père Lachais, Paris, France (2011, public domain).

“I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them,” he one said of his macabre artistry.

His tomb seems to have been carved to continue that tradition of terror for eternity. Adorned with flying skulls, shrouded ghouls, a winged skeleton, and other eerie imagery, one wonders just how well his neighbors are able to “sleep” at night,  forever confined to the shadow of Robert’s perpetual Danse Macabre.

For those looking for a more sedate place of contemplation, the memorial to 18th century composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) is located just off the Avenue Principale, slightly southwest of the Bartholomé’s 1895 Monument aux Morts (Memorial to the Dead)*. Merely a cenotaph now since Rossini’s remains were exhumed 19 years after his death (and later reinterred at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy at the request of the Italian government), the empty mausoleum continues to serve as a monument to the genius of one of the world’s greatest operatic composers.

The most rewarding stroll of all for savvy Père Lachaise visitors, however, is not to the graves of the greatest, but to a monument honoring an eight-year-old child. For it is while standing there, reading the words of a grieving, but loving family that the contemplative traveler receives a message worth pondering and sharing:

There are days that might outmeasure years.
Days that obliterate the past,
And make the future of the colour which they cast.

 

* The catacombs of the ossuary at Aux Morts are generally closed to the public, the doors locked to safeguard the remains of those memorialized by the crypt.

 

If You Go:

  • Père Lachaise: Virtual Tour with Interactive Cemetery Map
  • Travel Tips: Père Lachaise is located on the Boulevard de Ménilmontant, and may be reached using the Paris Métro station Philippe Auguste. An even better plan, though, particularly if you tire easily, is to start by visiting Oscar Wilde’s tomb first before working your way downhill through the remainder of the cemetery. To use this route, take the Métro’s line 3 to the Gambetta station. (Note: Avoid Père Lachaise station on lines 2 and 3 of the Métro; that station is actually less convenient because it is situated 500 meters away from the cemetery’s side entrance, which is closed to the public. But, if you do use the Gambetta station route, remember to print out and take a cemetery map with you before leaving your hotel since maps are not distributed at this entrance.)
  • Cemetery Visitation Rules: Pets are prohibited (except for service animals), as are unsupervised children, unauthorized vehicles, alcohol, picnics, walking on the lawns or flower beds, scattering a loved one’s ashes, or similarly disrespectful behavior. To learn more about appropriate cemetery conduct for mindful travelers, see Bringing Comfort by Documenting Burial Locations.
  • Winter Hours (November 6 – March 15): Mondays-Fridays from 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m; Saturdays from 8:30 a.m-5:30 p.m.; and Sundays and holidays from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Access ends 15 minutes before closing.) Summer Hours (March 16 – November 5): Mondays-Fridays from 8 a.m-6 p.m.; Saturdays from 8:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; and Sundays and holidays from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Access ends 15 minutes before closing.)

 

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