Touring Paris' historic cemeteries

Advertisement

Paris is a city known for its colourful locals and decorative arts – a traveller can find some of the best examples of both simply by visiting one of Paris' several landmark cemeteries. Sure, the inhabitants may be a tad on the quiet side, but how else will you get to visit the likes of François Truffaut, Oscar Wilde, and Édith Piaf? You don't have to be a morbid-minded person to seek out Parisian cemeteries, in fact the three detailed below are some of the most visited sights in the city, and are bound to be of interest to any traveller with an interest in history and the arts. Anyone looking for some peace will be certain to find the beautiful park-like landscapes provide a restful break from the bustle of Paris.

1. Cimetière du Père Lachaise

The world’s most visited cemetery, Père Lachaise (named after a confessor of Louis XIV) opened its one-way doors in 1804. Its 69,000 ornate, even ostentatious, tombs of the rich and/or famous form a verdant, 44-hectare sculpture garden. Among the 800,000 people buried here are: the composer Chopin; the playwright Molière; the poet Apollinaire; writers Balzac, Proust, Gertrude Stein and Colette; the actors Simone Signoret, Sarah Bernhardt and Yves Montand; the painters Pissarro, Seurat, Modigliani and Delacroix; the chanteuse Édith Piaf; the dancer Isadora Duncan; and even those immortal 12th-century lovers, Abélard and Héloïse, whose remains were disinterred and reburied here together in 1817 beneath a neo-Gothic tombstone.

On 27 May 1871, the last of the Communard insurgents, cornered by government forces, fought a hopeless, all-night battle among the tombstones. In the morning, the 147 survivors were lined up against the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Federalists), shot and buried where they fell in a mass grave. It is in the southeastern section of the cemetery.

Camp as a row of tents and as fresh as a tomorrow, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) is apparently as flamboyant in death as he was on his deathbed in what is now L’Hôtel, when he proclaimed ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death – one of us has got to go.’ It seems that the Père Lachaise grave of the Irish playwright and humorist (in Division 89), has been attracting admirers, who plaster the ornate tomb with indelible lipstick kisses. There has since been a clean up and a protective sheet of perspex wrapped around it, so lips have to stay zipped now.

But Wilde’s tomb is not the only grave concern at Père Lachaise these days. A security guard had to be posted near the grave of rock singer Jim Morrison (1943–71) not long ago after fans began taking drugs and having sex on his tomb (in Division 6). The cemetery’s conservation office has even issued a leaflet outlining the rules of conduct when visiting the grave. Meanwhile, up in Division 92, a protest by women a few years back saw the removal of a metal fence placed around the grave of one Victor Noir, pseudonym of the journalist Yvan Salman (1848–70), who was shot and killed by Pierre Bonaparte, great-nephew of Napoleon, at the age of just 22. According to legend, a woman who strokes the amply filled crotch of Monsieur Noir’s prostrate bronze effigy will enjoy a better sex life or even become pregnant. Apparently some would-be lovers and mothers were rubbing a bit too enthusiastically and the larger-than-life-size package was being worn down.

Père Lachaise has five entrances, two of which are on blvd de Ménilmontant. Maps indicating the location of noteworthy graves are available for free from the conservation office in the southwestern corner of the cemetery. Organised tours (adult/concession €6/3; h2.30pm Sat Mar-Nov) in French depart from here. For English-speaking travellers, the Père Lachaise Gravestone Walking Tour and the Jim Morrison Paris Walking Tour from Viator offer a more detailed look into the residents of the cemetery and the life (and death) of the Lizard King.

2. Cimetière de Montmartre

Established in 1798, the 11-hectare Cimetière de Montmartre is perhaps the most celebrated necropolis in Paris after Père Lachaise. It contains the graves of writers Émile Zola (whose ashes are now in the Panthéon), Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Stendhal, composers Jacques Offenbach and Hector Berlioz, artist Edgar Degas, film director François Truffaut and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky – among others. The entrance closest to the Butte de Montmartre is at the end of av Rachel, just off blvd de Clichy, or down the stairs from 10 rue Caulaincourt.

Maps showing the location of the tombs are available free from the conservation office at the cemetery’s entrance.

3. Cimetière du Montparnasse

Montparnasse Cemetery received its first ‘lodger’ in 1824. It contains the tombs of illustrious personages such as poet Charles Baudelaire, writer Guy de Maupassant, playwright Samuel Beckett, sculptor Constantin Brancusi, painter Chaim Soutine, photographer Man Ray, industrialist André Citroën, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the infamous affair, actress Jean Seberg, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his lover, writer Simone de Beauvoir, and the crooner Serge Gainsbourg, whose grave in division No 1 just off av Transversale is a pilgrimage site for fans, who place metro tickets atop his tombstone, a reference to his famous song ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ (The Ticket Puncher of Lilas).