On my first visit to Paris, my husband took me there. He’s a cemetery aficionado (or harolder*), and knew that I’d appreciate seeing this amazing place. We wandered around for hours looking at the sculpture reading the tombstones and visiting the columbarium. I found it beautiful but also very sad. The section with memorials to people murdered in the Holocaust brought me to tears. Man’s inhumanity to man really got to me on that visit.
I can spend hours looking around at the graves, the family crypts and the columbarium, where the urns of ashes are kept. I don’t find it creepy at all; rather, I find it peaceful, melancholy, comforting, sad and beautiful all at once. The care families and friends take in selecting the words etched on the gravestone or the photograph used on a niche in the columbarium is very moving.
Many famous people are buried or interred at Père Lachaise: Richard Wright, Marcel Proust, Molière, Isadora Duncan, and Chopin (except for his heart, which is in Warsaw). We checked out Jim Morrison’s grave, of course, and Oscar Wilde’s.
Here’s a bit of history from the Paris Tourist Office: Père Lachaise is the biggest and best-known cemetery in Paris and is located in the 20th arrondissment. The Jesuits originally purchased the site in the 17th century with the intention of starting a convalescent home there. One of the most famous occupants was François d’Aix de La Chaise, known as “Le Père La Chaise”, the Sun King’s confessor.In the 19th century, Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered several new cemeteries to be built to make up for the lack of burial places within the city. In 1803, the Prefect of Paris asked the architect Brongniart to convert the Père Lachaise land into a cemetery for the eastern part of the city. The cemetery officially opened on 21 May 1804, when the first burial was held.
*There is a term for people who like to spend time at cemeteries: harolding. It’s a reference to the great 1971 movie Harold and Maude, which you really should see if you haven’t yet. The Cat Stevens soundtrack and the wonderful love story are great. And it involves cemeteries, of course.