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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.