The biggest cemetery in Paris is also perhaps the most revered necropolis in the world. Among the 70,000 graves in Père Lachaise is no shortage of famous names – nor visitors to pay their respects. Yet while there are few entry requirements for the living, the dead face a stiffer set of rules.
Today, the honour of interment in Père Lachaise is reserved for those who have lived or died in Paris – a condition I fear my enemies are close to helping me oblige. It’s for this reason that I chose to pay a visit sooner rather than later. I want to meet my future tomb-mates and see their famous graves. After all, when you’ve been betrayed as many times as I have, you learn not to commit lightly to new company.
Once, falsely accused of a crime and eager to escape capture, I accepted a one-way train ticket from a contact of an acquaintance of an associate’s pal. This was a man whom, had I examined him in any detail at all, I’d have recognised as the city’s chief inspector with a fake nose and accent. Sure enough, I found waiting for me at the train station an ambush – and at the police station a most unpropitious cell.
But with all that behind me, I was determined to make better acquaintances in the next life. So, I headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Enter a live necropolis
“Take the metro east and get off with the people dressed in black.”
To this point, my travels in search of the gothic had been confined to examples of the architecture. Those buildings were usually religious and built to welcome weary pilgrims. There, life and death were present in equal parts, much as they would be anywhere else. But these simple directions to Père Lachaise, received from a local, were a reminder that this gothic site was like no other I’d visited.
A short walk from the main gate, on a bench outside the chapel, I found first-hand evidence.
Three men in matching black suits sitting in an identical pose – elbow on one knee, head in hand – awaited a funeral procession. Around the cemetery, the groundskeepers – young, dressed in reflective vests – preferred doing their work to sharing a spooky story. And among the weather-beaten tombs, many in a gothic style, I found crisp white marble in modern geometric shapes – some still waiting for their final date.
It’s obvious but easily overlooked. Père Lachaise is, for lack of a better term, a live necropolis. Nearly 10,000 funeral ceremonies take place here every year. Even the cemetery’s oldest tombs see modern use – when families purchase a plot, they often do so à perpétuité, forever. The engravings I saw, stacked like lists or huddled together, told family histories. A change of surname or freshly cut stone hinted at tales that spanned generations. Others, forgotten by accident or on purpose, appeared in various states of disrepair. It was as though they were bound to the fading memory of their charge.
And around them, the living – eager to avoid overcrowding the place – could only hope to pass like ghosts, undetected within the cemetery’s enormous grounds and visible only to each other.
A cemetery plot to serve Paris
Of course, overcrowding was always a problem in Paris – and its cemeteries were no exception. By the end of the 18th century, overcrowding had forced closures and bans on burials. And in the centre, the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery was being removed entirely. (Remains of named and nameless alike would find a new resting place. The subterranean quarries on the left bank of the Seine were transforming into the Catacombs of Paris.)
At the city’s edges, new cemeteries necessarily sprung up to ease the burden. And in 1803, architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart was assigned a plot of 42 acres and tasked with designing a cemetery to serve the east of Paris.
Yet business didn’t boom immediately for the newly inaugurated Père Lachaise Cemetery. For Parisians, it was further than they wanted to travel. For Catholics, it was missing the Pope’s blessing. Over 17 hectares, there were only 13 graves – none of them belonging to anybody famous enough to attract others. But in just a few months, as part of a plan that would continue into the next decade, that would change dramatically.
The first famous graves in Père Lachaise
Over 97 divisions and numerous named streets, Père Lachaise recreates the meandering style of an English garden. At times, it even seems lost to wilderness – something you’d usually have to get out of Paris to find. The tombs crowd together as though gathered and dispersed by a tide. Stewards handed me a paper map when I first entered. But it was so densely packed with markings – famous graves, historical monuments and more – that I knew it could only get me so far.
Lost souls crossed and recrossed my path. Heads hung low and feet scuffed along the path. It appeared that digital maps were of little more use.
We were, all of us, looking for the same thing. The 25th division. The intersection of Avenue Transversale 1 and Chemin Molière et La Fontaine. On my map, the numbers 49 and 58 marked the graves of two of France’s most famous writers – and a change in fortunes for Père Lachaise. In 1804, as part of a plan to attract more burials, the authority of Père Lachaise acquired the remains of Molière and Jean de La Fontaine, reburying them with what I assumed was great ceremony and splendour. My mistake was forgetting France’s pledge, still fresh by the early 19th century, to égalité. In reality, the graves of famous Molière and La Fontaine were no grander than those of their neighbours. When I found them at last, I called to the other wanderers in a stage whisper. We shared the view in silence.
A vision of the neo-gothic
For grandeur, however, I needed not go far. In the nearby 43rd division stood another piece of Père Lachaise history. The neo-gothic monument to the Greffulhe family, its doors sealed and chained, towered over those adjacent. The pointed arch of the doorway drew my attention to the spires on the roof. Greenery spilled from the cracks. The architectural plan was one of Brongniart’s own. In fact, it was the only one to make it off his drafting table and into the cemetery he designed.
Romance comes to Père Lachaise
With the famous writers’ posthumous moves to Père Lachaise, the dead of Paris at last had some attractive company. In 1813, 833 was the number of burials to beat – something the cemetery authority remained determined to do.
The story of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d‘Argentueil had held a place in French hearts for hundreds of years. (In the English-speaking world, they’re usually known as Abelard and Heloise.) Theirs was a forbidden romance between teacher and student. He, a philosopher twice accused of heresy for his dangerous ideas. She, a scholar as capable of articulating passion as inspiring violence. With a baby on the way, the couple fled to Brittany. But they were pursued by agents of Heloise’s uncle, who attacked and castrated Abelard as punishment. The couple entered the service of the church and never saw each other again. However, their love letters – exchanged for 20 years after their separation – are now considered a cornerstone of epistolary literature.
As part of the plot to attract new souls with more famous graves, Père Lachaise acquired the lovers’ remains in 1817.
Connected by ritual
The potency of their story was overwhelming. Burial in Père Lachaise became so popular that, over the coming half-century, the cemetery had to expand its borders five times. When I arrived, the monument to Abelard and Heloise was, like the tombs of Molière and La Fontaine, protected by black iron bars. Unlike those famous graves, however, the perimeter could do nothing to dissuade visitors.
Discarded metro tickets. Flowers sealed in plastic. Melted stubs of pink candles. And a weathered copy of “the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known”… Tributes to the lovers, doubtlessly offered by those looking for an eternal love of their own, littered the edges of the monument in a south-west corner of Père Lachaise.
Meanwhile, across the 110 acres of today’s cemetery, the living and dead alike continued to create connections and share company through similar rituals. People offered everything from lipstick marks to rolls of film to those they hoped to meet some other place, some other time.
Abelard and Heloise, at least, seemed content solely with each other.
Returned to life
I returned to the chapel, a valuable marker for finding my way out. The three men and their funerary procession had moved on. The tourists with whom I’d shared a view hadn’t crossed my path for an hour or more. My company had returned to the land of the living, where there was no need for silence and we might have enjoyed one another’s company in earnest.
While I’d come here eager to find a plot, seek some company and settle down, I found myself eager to join them. I’d like to live or die in Paris, to be in Père Lachaise surrounded by those famous people and sure of good company. But I’m in no rush – I have things to do, people to meet and lots to lose first.