The Cimetiere Père Lachaise is like a Who’s Who of the dead, with architecture to match the grandest burial monuments anywhere in the world. Exploring this fascinating place is like walking through a giant open-air gallery within magnificent landscaped grounds. It’s easy to get lost once inside the maze of paths. Unless you really want to see the grave of a specific person, wandering aimlessly is a relaxed way to discover the cemetery.
The avenues and small pathways that wind their way around the tombs make for one of the most attractive walks in Paris. That seems like a bit of a odd thing to say about a place full of dead people, but it’s both a peaceful and picturesque place to spend a morning or afternoon.
The world’s most visited cemetery, with over 3.5 million visitors each year, opened in 1804. There are only around 70,000 burial plots in the 44 hectares of grounds, but in the intervening 212-years it’s estimated that over one million people have been buried here. Maybe double that number have been cremated. Despite those numbers it’s still possible to be buried in Père Lachaise, but you have to live or die in Paris, and the waiting lists are long.
Some very famous names are inscribed on the tombstones of the Père Lachaise, a roll-call almost too long to mention. Those that we sought out included Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Moliere and Colette. There are also moving monuments to more ordinary folk, as well as those who gave their lives fighting persecution or conflict, from the slaughter of the Paris Commune to the barbarianism of the Holocaust.
Some stories behind the graves are moving, others just strange. The composer Chopin, originally from Warsaw in Poland, may be buried in Père Lachaise, but his heart was removed and sent for burial in his home country. French playwright Molière was reburied here, his interment used as an advertisement to popularise burials in Père Lachaise. Also buried here is Samuel Hahnemann, medical charlatan and inventor of the pseudoscience, homeopathy.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the cemetery is the often exquisite and moving sculptures. This is a place filled with magnificent mausoleums, Gothic graves and splendid shrines. Even though you’re in a cemetery your surroundings are so extravagant, it’s as if you were inside a museum filled with world-famous artworks.
While it’s a major tourist attraction, and in some parts of the cemetery you do see plenty of people, it’s easy to find yourself wandering silent and alone amongst the ghosts of the past.