In a couple of weeks I’m going to Paris. I’ve been there in every season except springtime, which according to poetry and literature throughout the ages, is the ultimate time to go.
(‘When spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise‘ – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer)
I’m particularly excited because it means I get to visit the French forerunner to the Magnificent Seven London cemeteries we know and love – the grand Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Sitting on a hill overlooking the city with it’s 110 acres, it’s the largest cemetery in all of Paris.
Père Lachaise was opened on 21 May 1804, the city’s answer to the rapidly filling graveyards in the city. London cemetery fans and long-time readers of this blog will be no stranger to the notion of overcrowded churchyards and corpses piling up with nowhere to go. A large garden cemetery situated far enough away from the city centre to avoid the spread of disease was the solution. London would follow suit some years later with the opening of Kensal Green Cemetery.
To begin with, Père Lachaise was not a popular cemetery. Most considered the greater distance from the centre of Paris a disadvantage, as it was too far to come for a funeral, and Roman Catholics would not be buried there as it had not been blessed by the church. By the end of 1804, Père Lachaise only contained 13 graves. Bizarrely, the administrators chose to execute a publicity stunt in order to attract more burials, and consequently, the remains of Jean de la Fontaine and Molière were transferred to Père Lachaise, after which popularity grew, and in 1812, 833 people had been interred there. Desperate to be buried next to famous people, everyone began clamouring to get in, and by 1830, there were more than 33,000 graves in the cemetery.
Père Lachaise has been expanded 5 times over the years (between 1824 and 1850) and today it holds over 1 million graves, which doesn’t include the columbarium, which houses the remains of the many that have chosen to be cremated there.
I visited the cemetery in early 2011, on the sort of grey January day where it never really gets light, and oddly, I took no photos of the place, bar a few Polaroids that didn’t develop well due to the lack of light and warmth needed. Specifically, I went to visit the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors, and I wasn’t the only one. As we arrived, near to midday, we found a small crowd of people gathered around the fence separating his (surprisingly tiny) grave from us, the common man.
Several people had chosen to vent their frustration at being the common man, forbidden from getting too close to the grave of their hero by scrawling graffiti on a nearby tree.
And on the sides of a nearby mausoleum.
The experience would have been somewhat of a musical epiphany had it not been so bitterly cold and dark that day. I declined to spend any more time freezing my butt off in a French cemetery, something I now regret. I would have liked to have visited some other famous Père Lachaise residents. Oscar Wilde for example. And I really wish I had taken some more photographs.
I hope to revisit this beautiful place in a couple of weeks, and I very much hope the weather is better. With that in mind, keep your fingers crossed for part 2 of this post!
All photos by Christina Owen © 2015