An Easter Visit to the Dead
While the rest of the Christian world was celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I visited the dead.
That might not sound like the kind of Easter weekend you’d wish for, but in all honesty, a stroll through the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise on a Saturday afternoon with almost no one around, the trees bursting with bright green spring leaves, was just perfect.
We didn’t bother to scout for the famous graves—just stroll along the paths, both cobblestoned and gravel and even in-between the graves, to discover the tombs that drew our attention. The last time I was there was not so long ago—for Jim Haynes’ funeral at the Crematorium, but hadn’t taken any extra time to wander through without an agenda.
The Père-Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris and could be the most famous in the world. It’s also the most visited cemetery with about three million visitors annually. It ranks way up there as a major tourist attraction in the City of Light, partly because of its 250+ celebrities buried there…such as: Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Max Ernst, Molière, Jim Morrison, Édith Piaf, Simone Signoret and Oscar Wilde, to name just a few.
The cemetery sits on the hill in Paris known as the Champ-l’Évêque because it belonged to the bishop of Paris in the Middle Ages. He named it Mont-aux-Vignes in the 11th century because of the vineyards that were grown there at the time. In 1430, a rich merchant by the name of Régnault de Wandonne bought the domain in order to build a fabulously rich house considered to be a “folie” (folly), hence the name of the current rue de la Folie-Régnault in the 11th arrondissement.
Two centuries later, the Jesuits acquired the land to make it a place of rest and convalescence. The expansive house welcomed the young King Louis XIV who had come to the hill to watch the fighting during the Fronde Wars, a period of serious unrest that struck the kingdom of France between 1648 and 1659. The king’s presence resulted in naming the place Mont-Louis, but the most illustrious occupant was François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709), known as Father La Chaise, confessor of the French King Louis XIV, who exerted a moderate influence on him in the fight against Jansenism, a theological movement within Catholicism. Father La Chaise died there in 1709.
His brother, the Count of La Chaise, was a bit of a “party animal” and gave many receptions on the estate, which contributed to its enlargement and embellishment, but in 1762, they were forced to give up the land to pay his debts. The gardens were abandoned and one owner moved in after another until it was sold to to Nicolas Frochot, a senior French civil servant and state councilor, the first prefect of the Seine. He died in 1828 and of course, is buried there—in Division 37.
Before the Père Lachaise, the Cimetière des Innocents at Les Halles was closed in December of 1780 following a law dating back to 1765 forbidding cemeteries to be housed inside the cities due to their deplorable conditions. The bodies from Les Innocents were transferred to the Catacombs, but there still wasn’t enough burial space, so several cemeteries in Paris were created—Montparnasse to the south, Montmartre to the north, Passy to the west and finally the Père-Lachaise to the east. Designed by architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart in 1803, he thought the Père-Lachaise should look like an English garden with tree-lined pathways between the divisions for strolling.
The cemetery opened in May 1804 and the first burial was of a five-year-old girl, Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a bellhop. In the course of its first year, the cemetery featured 13 graves, then 44 in 1805. Two years later, there are five more graves. But by 1815, it had grown to 2,000 graves and by 1830, it could boast of 33,000. Today there are 70,000 graves.
There are three types of burials from which one can choose: common graves to the left of the main entrance, time-limited plots around those and finally the prestigious monuments within the wooded areas. It’s still accepting new burials and I’d like to be among them. The rules are pretty strict, however: people may be buried there if they die in the French capital city or if they lived there (fortunately I qualify). There is a waiting-list as very few plots are available (I better get listed soon!).
One way they are managing to squeeze in newcomers is by combining the remains of multiple family members in the same grave. It is not uncommon to reopen a grave after a body has decomposed and inter another coffin. Some family mausoleums or multi-family tombs contain dozens of bodies, often in several separate but contiguous graves. Shelves are usually installed to accommodate their remains. Most recently, there is a standard practice of issuing 30-year leases on gravesites, so that if a lease is not renewed by a family, the remains can be removed, space made for a new grave, and the overall deterioration of the cemetery minimized. Abandoned remains are boxed, tagged and moved to Aux Morts ossuary, still in the Père Lachaise. Plots can be bought in perpetuity if one can afford it. According to the cemetery’s website, more than one million people are buried at the Père Lachaise, and along with the stored remains in the Aux Morts ossuary, the number of human remains easily exceeds two to three million.
The graves and tombs will astound and intrigue you, as will the dates engraved on them, now as much as 200 years, sometimes hard to read from the growth of moss and the decomposed state of the engravings. Some are elaborate and others simple. It’s easy to see who was wealthy and who was celebrated. Some are beautiful and others spooky. It reads like a history book about the last two centuries of life in Paris and no doubt, there is much to learn from these homes of the deceased.
I was most intrigued by one small grave with the arms of a woman protruding out from the grave, her hands holding one another, a bracelet on her left wrist. I could feel her presence in this life and the afterlife. I wanted to take her hand and say, “Darling, it’s going to be all right. You’re here with friends and we honor you.”
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
P.S. Would you like to lay at rest in Père Lachaise? We’d be happy to help you realize your dream to live in France so you can do so. Contact us today and let’s get started!