The first couple of days of our recent trip to Paris unintentionally took us on a death tour of the city. And after having been there countless times, I saw the City of Light in an entirely new way.
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We began with the Paris Catacombs, which my twelve-year-old stepson had desperately wanted to visit. The next day, I suggested we explore one of my favorite spots in Paris for wandering and we hopped on the metro to Père Lachaise.
The contrast between the two sites presented a lot of opportunities for discussion with the kids – and got me to thinking, as well.
First, a bit about the two:
The ossuaries that make up the Paris Catacombs were built in the late 18th century as part of an urgent need to address the city’s overflowing cemeteries. In a case of truth being stranger (and more gruesome) than fiction, the event that spurred action was a basement wall collapsing in the Saint-Innocents cemetery, causing rotting bodies to spill into a neighboring property.
After about twelve years of nightly wagon processions to transfer remains, the bones from more than six million bodies had been moved to the catacombs.
While there are a couple of historical figures who rest in the catacombs, to include Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre, the vast majority of the bones are from unidentified Parisians.
In the early 19th century the catacombs had become a novelty venue for concerts and private events and a small portion of it, about a mile, opened to the public for tours in 1874.
In 2004, the French police discovered a fully equipped movie theater in one of the caverns (complete with giant screen, film reels, a stocked bar and restaurant with tables and chairs). It’s still a mystery who set it up. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d watch a movie down there in the dark surrounded by bones.
It is staggering, and sobering, to me that the section of the catacombs open to the public (about an hour’s worth of walking) is just a portion of what’s down there. There are literally millions of bones residing beneath the Paris hustle and bustle. Each representing a soul who once walked the streets above but now bears no marker and no way to remember or honor them.
Which, of course, got me thinking about legacies and how we might be remembered when we’re gone. And how we might make some lasting positive impact upon the world, even if we aren’t remembered as individuals. (Sorry this got a little dark, but it is a post about post mortem, after all!)
I seldom go out, but when I feel myself flagging I go and cheer myself up in Père Lachaise . . . while seeking out the dead I see nothing but the living.
— Honoré de Balzac
In contrast to the Catacombs, the remains at Père Lachaise are all enshrined in elaborate tombs and mausoleums. The graves are honest to goodness works of art. I love the quiet, ornate cemetery and stop by every time I’m in Paris.
It is the most frequented cemetery in the world, with more than 3.5 million visitors annually – but given its size (10 acres), you could walk for 15 or 20 minutes without seeing anyone else (unless you’re visiting one of the many notable graves, which is another story).
Père Lachaise is named after the original owner of the land and Louis XIV’s confessor of the same name. The cemetery opened in 1804 and, like the Catacombs, it was born out of severe overcrowding of the city’s burial grounds in the 18th century.
Featured in scenes from the recent movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (although the scenes depicting the cemetery were actually filmed in London), Père Lachaise feels like a cross between a cemetery and an English garden park.
The graves of Père Lachaise are stunning in detail. They range from a simple block of concrete to towering monuments and even elaborate chapels dedicated to the memory of a then-well-known person or family. Many of the tombs are about the size and shape of a telephone booth, with just enough space for a mourner to step inside, kneel in prayer, and leave some flowers.
The cemetery has managed to squeeze in a staggering one million people since it opened. It does not feel nearly that crowded until you realize that multiple family members are often placed in the same grave. Some family mausoleums or multi-family tombs have had dozens of bodies interred in them over the years.
Among its famous residents are Honoré de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Molière, Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, and Oscar Wilde. And of course, Jim Morrison.
My fascination with Père Lachaise began the first time I visited Paris, just after my college graduation when I was backpacking through Europe with three girlfriends.
I had been nuts about the band the Doors growing up and was especially intrigued by their enigmatic lead singer, Jim Morrison, who died suddenly in Paris in 1971. So in the midst of our six-week trek through Europe, I dragged my friends to Père Lachaise for several hours to find his grave and pay my respects.
In retrospect, I really do appreciate their indulgence to take a full half-day out of the three short days we had in Paris to visit a cemetery and hunt down the grave of a long-dead singer.
Jim Morrison’s grave is modest and would be difficult to find, except for vandals over the years having painted other graves with the word “Jim” and an arrow pointing the way.
His grave has been so visited and picked over by souvenir seekers over the years that when I visited recently I found a chain link fence surrounding the site.
But that first visit started a habit for me. Every time I’m in Paris, without fail, I visit Père Lachaise – and Jim.
I love the winding cobblestone roads and pathways that weave through the cemetery. I’ve taken endless photographs of the intricate sculptures and headstones. And each time I go I notice graves I haven’t seen before. And despite the millions of visitors each year, Père Lachaise is always quietly still.
Aside from the rich and famous, many of the graves tell the story of their residents and one of my favorite parts of visiting is taking the time to read some of these stories – and scribble names to look up later.
On this most recent visit, we found a grave with a sculpture on top of two men lying side by side, hands entwined, Crocé-Spinelli and Sivel. The grave stated that they had died hot air ballooning in 1875.
After our trip, we did a little research to discover they had been attempting to fly higher than anyone before. They ascended to 26,000 feet over India and were asphyxiated when the air became too thin. They were quite known in their time, a New York Times article after their death even calling them, “martyrs to science.”
And we saw a number of graves with touching memorials to man’s best friend in life and in death.
I highly recommend a book I found among my husband Craig’s many books on Paris. It’s mostly available used these days and is called Permanent Parisians. Although the subject is a bit macabre, it is a fascinating look at the city’s cemeteries and their inhabitants.
Despite the huge number of residents in Père Lachaise, it’s pretty hard to get in. If you die in Paris or lived there, you can be buried there. However, there is a waiting list and very few plots are available.
What’s so special about these two sites?
Most of what you remember about Paris you learn while exploring life in the great city. The cafes, the museums, the Seine, and yes, the shopping.
But after this last trip, I realized that part of truly understanding the city and its history is to understand death there as well. Of course, people in Paris have died of regular old natural causes just like in every other city. But Paris also has a bloody history of rebellions, hangings, and mass executions by the “national razor,” aka, the guillotine. Death in Paris is as much a part of the fiber of the city as its vibrant life.
Given how many centuries Paris has been in existence, of course, it has a lot of cemeteries. Although chances are, especially if this is your first visit, you aren’t going to spend your entire time lurking around them.
To me, Père Lachaise and the Paris Catacombs are important to consider visiting together largely because they represent such an interesting juxtaposition of Parisian life and death. The Catacombs house literally millions of bones belonging to who knows how many anonymous souls.
Some were undoubtedly well off, but I would gamble that the majority of bones there belonged to the poor who were consigned to mass graves. The dead there are collectively more famous in death than life simply because of where their remains ended up.
Père Lachaise, on the other hand, is like observing death on the “right side of the tracks.” The ornate tombstones and mausoleums represent art styles ranging from art deco to gothic, even Egyptian. It’s like walking through an outdoor museum.
And it bears a long list of the rich and famous who designated it their final resting place. Even with a million people packed into its ten acres, it is a peaceful, calm, beautiful, above ground celebration of the lives of its inhabitants.
It’s an interesting contrast to examine the centuries of the dead in Paris. The stories of the famous and notorious will long live on, while so many of those who struggled through their daily lives will never be known or remembered.
Many other famous dead are buried in various locations around Paris. Degas and Dumas are buried in Montmartre; Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo and in the Pantheon; and of course Napoleon lies beneath Les Invalides. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI find their final resting place at Saint Denis Basilique, head and body once again reunited.
Each one of these names alone could generate a separate tour of Paris to examine history from their perspective. I would encourage you to pick a few of the many notables who expired in Paris and take a deeper dive into “their” Paris than what might be found in your guidebook.
I love Paris for so many reasons. Obviously, for its divine croissants and crepes, its art and museums, its shopping and its culture. I could go on and on.
But after this last trip, I can’t see any of that without thinking about its dead and the influences its storied history continues to exert on the present.
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