Millions of people enter the grounds of Père Lachaise in Paris each year. Some of them never, ever leave.
It is, after all, one of the most famous cemeteries in the world – and although it's strongly linked to death, Père Lachaise is perhaps better known for its great beauty and the incredible demand for its few burial spaces.
Its grounds hold fast some of the most famous people ever to walk the planet. As such – much like a VIP-only nightclub – anybody who's anyone in Paris wants to be buried there. Yet, no matter how deep your earthly bank account might be, you still might not be able to score a posthumous spot in this ultra-popular burial ground.
After all, Père Lachaise is no ordinary cemetery. Like the city around it, it's a blend of immaculate cleanliness and elderly dilapidation, legend and lore.
"Established by Napoleon in 1804, Père Lachaise is Paris's largest cemetery, consisting of more than 100 acres (40 hectares) and over 1,000,000 internments," says Keith Eggener, a professor at the University of Oregon who is known in part for his expertise on cemetery architectural history. "Among those buried here are many notable figures, particularly writers, painters, musicians, actors, and performers."
The cemetery takes its name from King Louis XIV's confessor, Father François d'Aix de La Chaise.
The cemetery's illustrious list of permanent residents includes Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Federic Chopin, Molière, Marcel Proust, Colette, Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix, Georges Seurat, Édith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Yves Montand and Marcel Marceau.
The First Landscape Cemetery
Eggener says that Père Lachaise is frequently called the first garden or landscape cemetery, based on the picturesque gardens built at many 18th-century English aristocratic country-houses, with irregular, winding paths and a seemingly random, naturalistic approach to plantings.
It's an approach that differed wildly from earlier cemeteries.
"Père Lachaise served as a turning point between the old, overcrowded medieval churchyards, where bodies had been piled atop each other for centuries, and the new garden cemetery movement," says author Loren Rhoads, who has written extensively about cemeteries.
"When the cemetery was opened in 1803, it stood at the edge of Paris. It was huge compared to the churchyards. Families could purchase burial space where they could be buried together, as opposed to the churchyards, where each person was buried as they fell and families were not only buried separately, but survivors had no idea where in the churchyard their loved ones might lie."
Rhoads points out that Père Lachaise was not immediately popular, in part because it was so difficult for people to reach. But the newly created necropolis wouldn't die easily.
"The cemetery founders decided they needed to have a gimmick to pull in the paying customers, so they found a body reputed to be Moliere's and buried it with lots of fanfare, then reunited the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise in a shared grave," she says.
Moliere, a great writer and actor, died in 1673, and remains known as one of the greatest playwriters to ever live. Abelard and Heloise were a star-crossed couple whose transcendent love letters enamored them to countless people around the world.
What began in Paris did not stay in Paris.
Eggener says that Père Lachaise's informal layout was a major inspiration to U.S.-based landscape designers of the mid-19th century, including those behind the Rural Cemetery Movement, the first urban public parks, and the first elite suburban subdivisions.
A Memorial to the Arts
These days, Père Lachaise is a major tourist attraction, less of a graveyard and more of a museum. Nearly 4 million people visit these hallowed grounds every year to witness its majesty.
One of the most popular headstones is that of the Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, who died in Paris at the age of 27 in 1971. His grave has been the repository of countless trinkets (legal and otherwise), and overeager fans have torn off bits of the area, including nearby graves, as mementos of the poet-singer who was famous in part for penning a death-laced song titled – aptly – "The End."
But for most of the people who enter these grounds, Père Lachaise isn't the end. Nor is it just a cemetery. It's a reflection of the Parisians who crafted and perfected its artfully imperfect approach to the afterlife.
"One of the things I've always found most intriguing about the place is its distinctly urban quality – its named, cobblestone streets densely lined with little stone tomb-houses, its cast-iron street furniture, its division into neighborhoods, and even its socio-spatial segregation (e.g., separate areas for Christians, Muslims and Jews)," says Eggener.
He adds that, "A true necropolis, Père Lachaise is indeed the double, or the reverse, of the living city that it serves."
How to Visit Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise Cemetery is located at 16 rue du Repos. The best way to get there is to take the No. 2 or No. 3 Métro line; get off at the Père-Lachaise stop and walk down the street – you can't miss it.
The cemetery is open every day (except major holidays), but hours vary depending on the day of the week and the time of year. There is no admission fee. Check the website for further information and updates.
Originally Published: Mar 5, 2021