On a sunny January morning in 2017, Herb and I were walking through La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With marble mausoleums that looked like houses lined up on narrow streets and tree-filled grounds dotting the landscape, La Recoleta seemed more like an elegant city than a final resting place. Mausoleums were architecturally elaborate, with carved doors, stained glass windows and stunning statuary. One was even decked out with a door knocker! I had never seen anything like it.

But I had not yet been to Père-Lachaise.

Paris’ largest cemetery sits inside a walled perimeter in the 20th arrondisement, the city’s eastern edge. Spread out over 110 acres and home to 70,000 “residents,” it is the most visited cemetery in the world. Named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Père François de la Chaise, the cemetery opened in 1804. Mausoleums and tombs of illustrious singers, writers, actors, scientists and politicians are found here. To be interred at Perè-Lachaise, you must either be a citizen of Paris or have died in Paris.

Herb and I had joined a group from our Tauck river cruise for a guided tour of the cemetery. It was mid-afternoon on our last day in Paris, and the sun was casting shadows through the autumn-tinged trees. As we walked through the gates, I was immediately taken by the scope of the grounds. Streets were surprisingly wide and diverged in different directions. Signposts on street corners marked various “divisions.” Unless you knew where you were headed, it was clear that this was a place where either a map or a guide was a good idea.

Walking into Père-Lachaise.
Rows of mausoleums line a street near the entrance.
Green street signs with white lettering are found throughout Père-Lachaise.

Some Favorite Père-Lachaise Residents

This was one of those tours where I completely needed to trust our guide to drop the breadcrumbs that would lead us out of the forest. We were surrounded by every imaginable style of architecture, lining street after street, row upon row. Life-size sculptures of characters looked down from their perches, piquing my curiosity and beckoning my camera. Streets and pathways twisted and turned every which way. It was a fascinating world unto its own – enthralling and beautiful and a little bit eerie.

Light shines through the stained glass window of a “corner lot” mausoleum.
Philippe Le Royer, a French and Swiss politician from the 19th century, served as president of the French Senate. 1816-1897.
French Romanticism painter Theodore Géricault lies on top of his tomb, paint palette in hand. 1791-1824.
French racing driver Léon Théry is depicted at his steering wheel. 1879-1909.
Winged ghouls and scary creature sit atop the tomb of Étienne-Gaspard Robertson, Belgian physicist and stage magician who performed “phantasmagoria” shows that featured ghosts and spirits. 1763-1837.
Henri Leglise reclines on his tomb, holding a book with the words “Commerce” and “Industry” written on the two open pages.
Visitors to the grave of Gilbert Morard leave train and metro tickets as an offering to the “Father of the Modern French Métro.” 1945-1999.
I couldn’t find any information on who lies in this pelican-topped grave, but I’m quite certain there must be an interesting story behind it!

And Some Famous Residents

Père-Lachaise is brimming with famous residents, from Frédéric Chopin and Edith Piaf to Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein. We visited three of these well-known sites and stopped for a few moments at each while our guide spun stories that surrounded each grave.

Oscar Wilde

A glass barrier was placed around the tomb of Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde to prevent damage from visitors who would cover the tomb with kisses of bright red lipstick. The Egyptian-theme tomb was created by sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Oscar Wilde’s tomb. 1854-1900.
Detail of Oscar Wilde’s tomb…and a few red hearts that made it beyond the glass barrier.

Molière and Jean de La Fontaine

Friends and fellow writers Molière and Jean de la Fontaine may share more than their side-by-side tombs. According to our guide, the remains of both had been buried somewhere else and later reburied at Père-Lachaise. There was some confusion in the process, and it is quite likely that their bones were mixed together – along with bones from other burials at the previous cemeteries – in both of the graves.

Tomb of La Fontaine (1621-1695) is on the left; Molière’s (1622-1673) is on the right.

Jim Morrison

As we approached the the tomb of American rock star Jim Morrison – lead singer of The Doors – we could hear one of The Doors’ hit songs coming from his gravesite. A fan had climbed over the low barrier to have a smoke, light a candle and listen to a Jim Morrison song from his phone, while sitting on the edge of the tomb. Morrison’s is the most visited tomb at Père-Lachaise.

A fan at the grave of Jim Morrison. 1943-1971.

A Living History

As I walked through Père-Lachaise, I couldn’t help but think of La Recoleta and how both of these cemeteries offer an insight into the culture of their cities. The elaborately decorated tombs and life-size sculptures tell stories in an instant and make you feel as if you’ve always known who these people were. In a way, it’s a kind of living history about those who are no longer living.

The tour ended on a leaf-covered street called Avenue Rachel in the 7th Division. Golden trees shimmered in the distance, and Pére-Lachaise looked especially stunning. In an hour or so, we would be leaving Paris, traveling on the Seine as the ms Sapphire makes its way to our first stop in Normandy. But for the moment, we were soaking in Paris one last time.

8 Comments

  • Beautiful story and photography. Thanks for sharing another of your stories. I always look forward to reading them.

  • Marvelous, as usual, Mary! You’re quite right about needing a guide or a map (or, these days, a GPS?)! On our only visit so far, we finally had to quit hunting (for Wilde, Stein, et al), relax, stroll and just take in the beauty and the gently gravitas of the place. I wonder if anyone has written a play or a novel in which some of the luminaries here converse, mulling over the state of the world. Might be a lot of fun and interesting philosophy. (But no, I’m not the one to do it!). Thanks as always, Eric.

    • Eric, your comments never fail to bring a smile! I do think that’s a terrific idea for one of your short stories 🙂 It was fun to hear that you’ve wandered through Père-Lachaise as well. It’s quite an extraordinary place, isn’t it? Even with the map I linked to, I think it would take some serious planning to find everyone! Thanks for reading, as always.

  • Fascinating! Though I’ve been to Paris many times, Père-Lachaise has never featured in my adventures, so thank you for taking me with you today, Mary. You were blessed with fabulous weather, weren’t you?!

    • Thank you, Gill! I highly recommend adding Père-Lachaise to your future Paris travels. I think you’d really enjoy the fun of tracking down specific people as well as simply wandering the lovely streets. And yes, the weather was unbelievably wonderful! We kept pinching ourselves every day…especially with so many outdoor activities on the itinerary. 🙂

  • Thank you for sharing this Mary. What a perfect time of the year to visit, right before all souls day when the spirits are especially rowdy. If you ever make it to the East coast, I will take you to the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. It is not nearly as large as this one in Paris but has long winding paths, ancient trees and spectacular architecture. It’s a favorite spot for a long winding walk.

    • Linda, We didn’t encounter any rowdy spirits, but it certainly was beautiful in the fall! Thanks for saying hello here and for the tour offer of the intriguing-sounding Mt. Auburn. We will definitely take you up on that!

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