Hi Frugalistas! The first words I heard when I entered Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris made my heart sink. “Where’s Morrison? I have to find Morrison. There’s no point coming here if we don’t see Morrison…..” Precisely the reason I had taken until my tenth trip to Paris to visit Pere Lachaise, despite it being arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. The cult of celebrity. And even worse, the cult of dead celebrity…… I wasn’t sure why exactly I was visiting Pere Lachaise. But I knew it definitely wasn’t to visit dead celebrities. At the end of my visit, I found plenty of reasons to recommend Pere Lachaise as a place to visit on your next trip to Paris – whether it is your first or your tenth!
The real reasons to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery
I arrived in Pere Lachaise Cemetery on a cool, grey Sunday autumn morning. A few French families were gathered with flowers at the entrance. Another small group of 10 people or so were with a French guide, starting a guided tour of Pere Lachaise. I arrived with no plans and no preconceived ideas. I wanted to experience Pere Lachaise and find out why it might be the most visited cemetery of all.
Pere Lachaise isn’t just rows and rows of gravestones. It’s architecture is rich and lush. From high Victorian Gothic to Art Nouveau to the starkly modern, mausoleums tell the story of the architecture of Paris.
A small murder of crows (or maybe they were ravens?) keep watch over the inhabitants. Their cries created an atmosphere that could have been chilling. But it wasn’t. On that grey Sunday morning, it seemed so right that they would be there. They belonged.
As I walked up and down the avenues (getting lost like I always do) church bells rang out to announce Sunday Mass. It could have sounded melancholy. But it didn’t. Just like the crows, those church bells seemed so right.
Pere Lachaise is built on a hill. Like any village, climbing the hill affords some spectacular views over the roof tops. With the autumn leaves, and moss on the roofs there really are some stunningly beautiful views and outlooks. In fact, at times I forgot I was in a cemetery. It really was like a village.
As you walk around Pere Lachaise, the people of Paris, some long gone, some more recently departed, will come to greet you. If you look. Whole families. The old. The young. Sometimes the painfully young. But there was one thing I noticed about the people of Paris in Pere Lachaise that was very different. I don’t know about you, but in the Australian burial tradition, different religions are buried in separate sections. There is a Jewish section separate from the Christians. The different branches of Christianity are even separate. Pere Lachaise is a very different community. Jews and Christians. French names, Russian names, Chinese names and English names, all side by side.
Near the northeastern exit of the cemetery, heroes, rather than celebrities are celebrated. The people of countries from all around Europe who died in the defence of France are remembered. And remembered as heroes. Their memorials speak of the history and culture of their peoples. I was particularly struck by the Armenian memorial with its very artistic onion dome. And the austere early Art Deco of the Belgian – very familiar to me from my visit to Reims.
Final reflections on my visit to Pere Lachaise Cemetery
I wonder if that group of young American tourists found Jim Morrison’s grave? But more importantly I wonder whether they heard the sounds of the cemetery? Whether they absorbed the atmosphere? Whether they appreciated the community of Parisians from all walks of life who chose Pere Lachaise as their final resting place?
I would argue that the reason you shouldn’t visit Pere Lachaise is to look for dead celebrities. And in particular dead celebrities who just happened to die in Paris. Why you should visit Pere Lachaise is for its history, its beautiful, sometimes faded architecture, its peace, and its sense of the Paris community of the past 150 years. Parisians together. In death, just as they were in life.
By the way, I did “find Morrison”. But not on my walk. At the exit there was a “site map” of famous graves (just as there was at the entrance.) I looked up Jim Morrison’s grave and saw where it was. It was in a part of the cemetery where I had not walked. I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time. Because what I had found was something far more interesting. Far more moving. And definitely far more Parisian.
If you read my last post you can start your Belleville and Butte Chaumont walk at the northeastern exit to Pere Lachaise.
Have you been to Pere Lachaise? I’d love to read what you thought of it, so please, do leave a comment below.
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