Hi Frugalistas! The first words I heard when I entered Père 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 Père 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 Père 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 Père 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 Père Lachaise Cemetery
I arrived in Père 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 Père Lachaise. I arrived with no plans and no preconceived ideas. I wanted to experience Père Lachaise and find out why it might be the most visited cemetery of all.
Père 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.
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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.
Père 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 Père 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 Père 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. Père 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 Père Lachaise Cemetery
I wonder if that group of young American tourists found Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise? 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 Père Lachaise as their final resting place?
I would argue that the reason you shouldn’t visit Père Lachaise is to look for dead celebrities. And in particular dead celebrities who just happened to die in Paris. Why you should visit Père 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 Père Lachaise.
Have you been to Père Lachaise? I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
Plan your trip to Père Lachaise cemetery:
If you prefer a guided tour, With Locals offer a private guided tour of Père Lachaise, which you can click here to check out >>
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Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru says
While I’ve not visited Pere Lachaise, I do quite understand the sentiment against thinking it is a place solely for celebrities. I probably would have looked for Morrison’s grave, but we like seeing what people leave in remembrance. One of the most interesting cemeteries we visited was in Deadwood, South Dakota. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried within a few steps of each other on a beautiful steep hillside covered with pines. They and their friends and neighbors truly rest in peace. And if they don’t, visitors routinely leave bottles of whiskey at their graves for one last rowdy time.
Svetoslav Dimitrov says
I have heard of the cemetery, but did not know it has such a beautiful architecture and history. I sensed I was there reading through your post – thanks!
I would put Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in the “historic figures” rather than celebrity category, but your point is well taken, Betsy. I do like the sound of their final resting place – sounds lovely!
I must admit I didn’t realise how beautiful it was until I went there. Thank you for your kind feedback
Beth | Adventuring the Great Wide Somewhere says
You wouldn’t think cemeteries could be a beautiful thing…but they are! I had the chance to visit the Montparnasse cemetery last summer, and wasn’t expecting much (it was my dad’s idea). But you are right. I saw old friends visiting loved ones, kids playing on the grass, and even a couple sharing a bottle of wine on a park bench. The sounds, the names on the stones, and certainly the architecture all contribute to the overall sense of Parisians coming together. It’s a beautiful city, and visiting these spots is a unique new way to see Paris and think about what it stands for.
I haven’t been to Montparnasse either, Beth, so maybe I should put that on the list for next time! I really appreciate the suggestion
Ana O says
I’m glad you went ahead and published this.
Historic cemeteries hold a strange fascination. I visit them whenever I get the chance for the historic figures and the art. Celebrities, not so much 🙂
I also like to find little gems, like the statue of Christ wearing cowboy boots in the cemetery of Paris, Texas.
Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus says
I was about to respond after reading the post and saw this comment… couldn’t agree more. Such beautiful history and architecture! Thanks for sharing.
Cacinda Maloney says
As a lover of cemeteries, I cannot believe I still have not been here! Thanks for encouraging me!
That statue sounds so cool Ana – that’s definitely a reason to visit a cemetery – in “the other” Paris!
Thanks Alyssa, much appreciated.
Well, it took me 10 trips to Paris to get there, so there’s hope for you yet, Cacinda!
Alice Teacake says
Visiting a famous spot but seeing, feeling and experiencing it from a different perspective and angle is the beauty of travel for me. To think of all the famous landmarks people see in Paris – that they just go to, snap and check off their list and leave…it’s lovely to see you looked at it all a bit differently. Happy Travels Jo!
Have not been to Pere Lachaise since we were really young – before Jim Morrison died. Seem to remember we may have seen Chopin’s grave, but it was long ago and have forgotten. These days we rarely visit cemeteries, would seem to be tempting fate at our age! I do sometimes visit small church graveyards after the funerals of friends – and walk amongst the old graves afterwards. Thinking about the friend’s life and reading the inscriptions, some so very young and so sad.
Have visited war graves though, like Gallipoli or those on Crete, for example. I’d also like to visit the cemetery isle of Venice to see the graves of Diaghilev et al.
But maybe we should take a walk through Pere Lachaise next time. In June our family had a wonderful visit – and did see the JM grave, of course. Your observation on how there are no divisions in Pere Lachaise – people of all faiths being buried together is v interesting. One wonders why. But there seems to be something quite positive about it. Best wishes, Pamela
Thanks Alice that’s very kind
Sonal of Drifter Planet says
I am a fan of Jim Morrison’s music and read his biography back in college. I do know he passed away in Paris but did not know (or remember) that he was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. Don’t judge me but I do like visiting cemeteries. They are peaceful and can be actually beautiful places to visit. These also remind us of our mortality.
Sarah Dittmore says
This is exactly how I felt when I went. It’s a beautiful cemetery, but the people sitting on one un-named grave to put on lipstick to kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave made me uncomfortable to say the least.
Yuck, that would definitely be a turn off. How disrespectful…..
I like visiting them too, Sonal, it’s the cult of celebrity that I can’t cope with. Jim’s grave is actually quite hard to find – it’s tucked away in a quiet corner and you genuinely do need to go looking for it. It’s not on a “main street”.
Yes, Pamela, Chopin is also buried there. You’re right – some of the inscriptions are sad, and I’m unsure as to the difference with our AngloSaxon tradition of keeping the faiths separated. Maybe they are Parisians first, and their faith/cultural background second?
Great photos, It’s on my list to hit for next year. Thanks
Thanks David, glad it’s inspired you!
Liz Brown says
I am so glad you went & enjoyed Pere Lachaise Cemetery. While I enjoy visiting the famous that are buried there – be they political, musical, celebrity, military, whoever…. It is the walking between them, that you see what you experienced. The beauty of the cemetery. During my last visit, I came over a hill and heard a metal taping sound. I walked towards it, in between the rows and back into the depths was a man hand carving a headstone for a newly deceased. I took a picture of it. It is one memory I cherish – capturing that history of Paris, happening right then, right in front of me. I hope you can go again & explore more.
What a special experience Liz. I will definitely be returning to Pere Lachaise. Now that I’ve been it’s a “must visit” for me now in Paris.
Heather Bailie says
I didn’t care about Morrison. I was looking for Chopin, Wilde, Piaf, Proust- and above all, Éloise & Abélard.
A grounds keeper asked if I was looking for Morrison when he saw me studying my map, and he seemed rather pleased when I said Éloise & Abélard.
A dapper elderly gentleman strolling through helped me find Probst, and he, too, seemed impressed that I wasn’t looking for Morrison.
I guess most tourists do. But I spent a cool, foggy morning wandering the ruelles and admiring the crypts. It is indeed a place in which to slow down.
Morrison must be the, er, star……yes, it certainly is a great place to wander