Metro : Gambetta,
Père-Lachaise, Alexandre Dumas. Open : 7h30am - 6pm.
Père-Lachaise cemetery is like a miniature city
devastated by a neutron bomb : a great number of dead, seemingly empty
houses and temples of every size and style, and exhausted survivors,
some congregating aimlessly, some searching persistently. The
cemetery was opened in 1804 after an urgent stop had been put on
further burials in the overflowing city cemeteries and churchyards, and
to be interred in Père-Lachaise quickly became the ultimate
symbol of riches and success. A free map of the cemetery is
available at the entrance on rue des Rondeaux by Avenue du Père
lachaise, or you can buy a more detailed souvenir one at newsagents
near here and the Boulevard de Ménilmontant entrance.
Swarms flock to the now-sanitized tomb of ex-doors
lead singer Jim Morrison (division 6), cleansed of all its graffiti and
watched vigilantly by security guards. Colette's tomb (division 4),
close to the main Ménilmontant entrance, is very plain though
always covered in flowers. The same is true for Sarah Bernhardt's
(division 44) and the great chanteuse Edith Piaf's (division 97).
Marcel Proust lies in his family's conventional tomb (division 85),
which honours the medical fame of his father. In division 92,
nineteenth-century journalist Victor Noir - shot for daring to
criticize a relative of Napoleon III - lies flat on his back, fully
clothed, his top hat fallen by his feet.
Corot (division 24) and Balzac (division 48) both
have superb busts, Balzac looking particularly satisfied with his life.
Géricault reclines on cushions of stone ( division 12), paint
palette in hands. Chopin (division 11) has a willowy muse weeping for
his loss. The most impressive of the individual tombs is that of Oscar
Wilde (division 89), adorned with a strange Pharaonic winged messenger
(sadly robbed almost immediately of its prominent penis by a
scandalised cemetery employee, who, so the story goes, used it as a
paperweight) sculpted by Jacob Epstein and a grim verse from the Ballad
of Reading Gaol behind. Nearby, in division 96, is the grave of
Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Herbuterne, who killed herself in
crazed grief a few days after he died in agony from meningitis.
It is the monuments to the collective, violent
deaths, however, that have the power to change a sunny outing to
Père-Lachaise into a much more sombre experience. In division
97, you'll find the memorials to those who died in the Nazi
concentration camps, to executed Resistance fighters and to those who
were never accounted for in the genocide of the last world war.
The sculptures are relentless in their images of inhumanity, of people
forced to collaborate in their own degradation and death. Finally,
there is the Mur des Fédérés (division 76)n the
wall where the last troops of the Paris Commune were lined up and shot
in the final days of the battle in 1871. The man who ordered their
execution, Adolphe Thiers, lies in the centre of the cemetery (division