A Walk in Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise cemetery is just a few hundred metres from my apartment on Rue de la Croix Faubin in the 11th arrondissement. It's somewhere that I explore once in a while, and its beauty never ceases to surprise me. It was created in 1804 and is named after Louis XVI’s confessor who lived nearby. It stands on a wooded hill overlooking the city.

The elaborate tombs, which ascend the hill in rows like stone telephone boxes, are testament to a time when families saw nothing democratic in death. Romantic architects, who were employed to create a lasting testament to these families’ wealth and power, embellished the tombs with exquisite sculpture and carvings. The larger, more impressive edifices that dominate this hill are striking in their scale.

The Old Section of Père Lachaise

The old section of the graveyard with its meandering paths, densely planted with trees and hedges, is the most interesting part in which to wonder. The famous rock star, Jim Morrison, can be found buried at the top end of section six, hidden in among the towering tombs. His grave is surprisingly modest and a lot less rock & roll than what one might imagine. The last time I visited, I noticed that steel crowd-control barriers surrounded his grave. Ironically, they are not unlike the ones you are likely to find penning in the crowds at rock concerts. Another musical legend, the composer Frederick Chopin, is found not far from Jim Morrison in section 11. A pretty girl carved from white stone sits sadly on his tomb.

Oscar Wilde, however, is probably the most Rock & Roll of all the hill’s residents. Found in the more modern grid-like section of the graveyard, the eccentric Irish playwright’s tomb underwent a sort of continual desecration over the years by his fans – touchingly the damage was incurred with red lipstick stained kisses. The beautiful Egyptian-style statue and tomb, designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein, was recently cleaned of its red embellishments by the Irish government and encased in protective glass. I can’t help from thinking Oscar would have been sad about this.

Off the Beaten Track Walk Around Père Lachaise

A suggested walk would be to take the main entrance approached from Père Lachaise Metro station. Once you are in the graveyard take the second right onto the Avenue Casimir-Perier, which leads to the Casimir-Perier roundabout. Not far from here you will find both Jim Morrison and Chopin. Climb the nearby steps up to the Chemin des Chèvres, a hidden walk, which commands dramatic views over the cemetery. This walk leads onto section 28 and 39 where the generals of France are buried. Some of the tombs sport impressive equestrian statues. If you continue on around these sections you will arrive back onto the main route known as the Avenue Transversal 1, which going west, will lead you straight to the graves of Honoré de Balzac and Eugène Delacroix, found at section 49 and 48.

Fascinating Graves at Père Lachaise

Georges Rodenbach: this Belgian poet’s grave is a fascinating work of art in itself.

Molière: Since the great French playwright was also an actor, at the time of his death in 1673 he was not permitted to be buried in sacred ground. It was for this reason his remains were transferred to Père Lachaise in 1817. Interestingly, when Père Lachaise first opened, city authorities moved the remains of famous people like La Fontaine and Molière to Père Lachaise in order to make it a more fashionable place to be buried.

Gertrude Stein: The friend of Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse and whole host of other fascinating figures from the early avant-garde, she’s the person who famously coined the term “The Lost Generation”. Her book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas recounts this time evocatively.

Guillaume Apollinaire: The man who coined the word Surrealism, Apollinaire was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. He was a close friend of Picasso and participant in the avant-garde movements of Montmartre and Montparnasse in Paris.

Marcel Proust: The underwhelming tombstone in chic black marble conceals a giant of 20th century French literature. A must see for fans of French literature.

Gabrielle Colette: Colette, the French novelist, is a truly beguiling figure. She famously danced half naked on stage at the turn of the century; she despised feminists and said they deserved the lash; she led an open lesbian affair for a decade; she was one of the first people in Paris to have a facelift; she had an affair with her stepson when she was in her 50s; she was heavily overweight and spent much of her later years in bed.

Théodore Gericault: Living only till the age of 32, Gericault painted the monumental Raft of the Medusa, which is one of the most visited paintings in the Louvre. His tomb is itself a monument to French romanticism.

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