History of Paris’ Most Famous Necropolis

by M-Gillies

A pathway in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. Photo by: Dorli Photography

Cited as the most famous necropolitan in the world, Cimetiere du Père-Lachaise has been called the most picturesque for all cultural connoisseurs and aficionados of mortuary architecture for its sublime Gothic presence. It’s a sprawling metropolis of the dead with 118 acres that can only be navigated with the aid of a guidebook, map or one of the knowledgeable locals. For over 200 years, Cimetière du Père-Lachaise has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually who travel from far to visit the cemetery’s eclectic inhabitants. Organized neatly into 97 divisions that are separated by cobblestoned, tree-lined walkways, the cemetery itself is the home to permanent Parisians, notably Oscar Wilde, Victor Noir, Marcel Proust, Jean de Brunhoff, Sarah Bernhardt and of course The Doors capricious frontman Jim Morrison.

It was during the wake of the French Revolution, in the late eighteenth century when the European revolution in funerary customs that landscaped cemeteries (inspired by Romantic English gardens such as Elysian Fields) and other burial grounds were created. While many of these were constructed outside of cities, Père-Lachaise was the first, the most famous and the most exemplary of all the European Cemeteries.

With The Saints Innocents Cemetery having been closed in 1780 due in part to mass graves and overuse, which lead to concerns of unsanitary conditions, incomplete decomposition of bodies and the fear of fetid corpses, Louis XVI enacted an edict which forbade burying corpses in Les Innocents and in all other cemeteries in Paris. Soon, bodies were exhumed and the bones were moved to the Catacombs in 1786.

However, it was in 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte who had quickly rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution, had enacted the establishment of the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Using the name of Père Francois de La Chaise (1624-1709), the confessor of Louis XIV, and who had further lived in the Jesuit house, which was rebuilt in 1682 on the site of the chapel. Though the property was situated on the side of a hill from which the king had watched skirmishing between the Conde and Turenne during the Fronde (the French civil war of 1635), the cemetery was extended and laid out by prominent French architect, Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart.

With the Emperor impressed with Brongniart’s work on the cemetery, the architect was soon commissioned to design the Paris Bourse (the Parisian stock exchange). This would be Brongniart’s final work, which would be completed 12 years after his death. After Brongniart’s death, his body would be interred in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in 1813.

When the cemetery opened on May 21, 1804, the first person to be interred in the property would be the five-year-old daughter of a door bell-boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine upon the proclamation made by Bonaparte in which he declared, “Every citizen has the right to be buried, regardless of race or religion.”

However, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise wasn’t as popular as many had hoped when it first opened. Many of the citizens believed the cemetery was situated too far from the city. Further, the Roman Catholics refused to have their graves in a place that had not been blessed by the church. Because of this, the first year of its opening, Père-Lachaise only contained 13 graves.

To further encourage people to purchase plots on the property, administrators for the cemetery devised a marketing strategy which they hoped would generate great fanfare. During 1804, the remains of French fabulist, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) and actor/playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673), better known by the stage name Molière were soon transferred to the cemetery. Whether or not the transfer of the remains increased the profile of Cimetière du Père-Lachaise or not, the necropolis soon became known as the cemetery of aristocracy, and the following year saw an increase of interments with 49 new burials, followed by 62 in 1807, and 833 in 1812. However, it was only after the remains of the medieval French scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and writer Heloise d’Argenteuil were purportedly transferred to the cemetery in 1817, that people began clamouring to be buried amongst the famous inhabitants.

Within the next few years, Père-Lachaise went from containing a few dozen permanent residents to boasting more than 33,000 by 1830, causing the cemetery property to be expanded five times between 1824-1850. As of today, the cemetery is the final resting place of over 1 million people, with many more, who requested cremation, residing in the columbarium. Even with a growing number of interments, Père Lachaise is still an operating cemetery which continues to accept new burials.

While burial in any cemetery in Paris only requires a person to have either died in the French capital city or have lived in the city, burial in Père-Lachaise has stricter regulations due to few availabilities for burial plots, coupled with a waiting list. While the grave sites at Père-Lachaise range from simple, unadorned headstones to towering monuments and even elaborate mini chapels, many of the tombs are the size of telephone booths, allowing just enough space for mourners to kneel in prayer and leave flowers.

Recently however, Père-Lachaise has adopted a new standard practice of issuing 30-year leases on grave sites. This practice would see remains removed for any non-renewed lease in order to create space for new graves, and further prevent any deterioration to the cemetery property. Meanwhile abandoned remains are boxed, tagged and moved to Aux Morts (To the Dead) Ossuary.

Aside from being the site of three World War I memorials, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is also the necropolis to some famous interments including:

Oscar Wilde's grave has been covered with messages and kisses put there by adoring fans. The cemetery has erected a glass shield to protect the tomb from further markings.

Oscar Wilde: He was originally buried in the Bagneaux cemetery in 1900. During his interment in the Bagneaux cemetery, Wilde’s body was enshrouded in quicklime to reduce the cadaver to bones in a short span of time, upon which he was transported to Père Lachaise a couple of years later, where he was interred in the famous sculpture created by sculptor, Sir Jacob Epstein.

Jim Morrison: Often subject to vandalism, Morrison’s grave is modest and slightly tucked away from the main path. While his grave is one that attracts a great deal of attention, it can often be found littered with not only flowers and tributes but cigarettes and junk. Though his burial is said to have been a piteous affair, lasting only ten minutes with no priest or prayer, his parents erected a headstone baring the Greek expression “KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY” which reflects the Stoic philosophers’ tenet of not caring about what other people might say and pursuing one’s own choice. The expression translates roughly as “according to what conscience suggests being right.”

Victor Noir: Perhaps one of the most interesting sculptures in Père Lachaise, the final resting place of French journalist Victor Noir has long been held as a symbol of fertility. Finding fame stemming from the manner of his death and the political consequences that soon followed, Noir was shot and killed by Pierre Bonaparte after presenting the first cousin of Emperor Napoleon III with the terms of a duel requested by another journalist by the name of Paschal Grousset.

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