A few weeks ago, I reminisced here about a trip to Père Lachaise Cemetery I made in early 2011, to visit Jim Morrison. This was before Sheldon and I founded Cemetery Club and my interest in cemeteries had not yet been ignited by Sheldon’s wonderful and inspiring love of this section of world history. Basically what I’m trying to say here is – I went there but I didn’t pay it much attention. All I had to share with you were a few dingy Polaroids I had saved from that day all that time ago. I didn’t even have many solid memories of the place, beyond a vague knowledge that it had been grand and I had got a bit lost.
Last month, on a sunny and very warm day in early April 2015, one that was far too summer-like for the time of year, and one that was so far removed from the conditions during my last visit, I went back for round 2 at the big French forerunner to our own Magnificent 7 Cemeteries.
I took my boyfriend Dan with me – his first ever Cemetery Club visit – and his reaction to the place when we arrived there was so wonderful that I wish I could have filmed it and put it here. ‘It’s a city of the dead!’ he exclaimed, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting description for it.
Mausoleums and monuments rose up in rows from the front of the cemetery, moving back and back but also up and up, for Père Lachaise is a cemetery laid out in levels, so that on entering, there is a great sense of being in the middle of a vast city, with generations of Parisian ghosts staring down at you from their towering residences.
It is grand here to the extreme – the only Magnificent 7 cemetery that could really ever hope to hold a candle to it is Highgate West, and even that withers and dies in comparison. There really is no comparison. The millions of people who have been interred here since the cemetery opening in 1804 have made one-upping each other in death into an art.
And I wished Sheldon could have been there to see it. I’ve watched his reaction on entering many a cemetery and seeing many a tomb but he would have been beside himself here – to the cemetery lover, Père Lachaise is the stuff that dreams are made of.
There hasn’t been a single Cemetery Club visit where I didn’t a take a photo of Sheldon peering into a Mausoleum. He wasn’t here and so Dan and I took turns attempting to fill his shoes.
It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on us as we ventured further and further into the maze of paths and side paths and got more and more tangled up and lost in this great Land of the Dead. We found Jim Morrison again – because I wanted to go back and see if he was as I had remembered. We knew we were getting close to the right spot when each tombstone and mausoleum we passed appeared to have lyrics by The Doors etched clumsily into them, and then we found him, fenced off and hidden behind other, grander looking gravestones in a corner. Just as I had remembered.
We decided to go looking for other notables – Oscar Wilde was our next stop, but he turned out to be hiding so far up and back in the cemetery, and we got so sidetracked looking at other things, and then totally lost, that we gave in. I had a marathon to run in 3 days time and walking on cobbles was not a good idea for a long period of time. I decided to save my legs, and save my visit to Wilde, to Edith Piaf, to Molière and all the others for a third visit – and I resolved to bring Sheldon back with me.
Despite our lack of famous faces, it turned out to be a beautiful walk on a beautiful day – for Père Lachaise is also a grand park, and chock full of beautiful trees, flowers and other wildlife. There are also interesting graves galore, and I think it would be perfectly possible to tour the cemetery every day for a month and notice a new thing on every single day.
We meandered around Père Lachaise for a good long time that day, but probably didn’t even cover a 10th of it’s sprawling, climbing and winding 105 acres (43 hectares). It’s the largest cemetery in Paris and on this day, we completely understood how that could be so. I will return. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this adventure.
Père Lachaise facts:-
The estate was acquired in the 17th century by the Jesuits, who built a hospice there and called it Mont-Louis.
Father La Chaise – Louis XIV’s confessor, retired there – and it is named for him, although when it was first opened as a Cemetery it was known as the Cimitiere de L’Est (Cemetery of the East).
As the graveyards of the city filled and then over-spilled, large garden cemeteries sprung up around the edges of the city – Montmartre Cemetery in the north, Père Lachaise in the east and Montparnasse Cemetery in the south. Several years after the opening of Père Lachaise in 1804, London would borrow this idea to solve it’s own overpopulated graveyard crisis – beginning with the opening of Kensal Green Cemetery in 1833.
All photographs by Christina Owen Copyright 2015