The Cemetery of The Père-Lachaise
By Anne Rohan
T he cemetery of the Père-Lachaise, or "cimetière de l’Est", is located in the twentieth district of Paris. Its surface area is 44 hectares; since its construction, the cemetery was extended several times. It is the largest cemetery of Paris and one of the most prestigious necropolises in the world. Two million visitors come each day to visit the Père-Lachaise, it has about one million burial places, extravagant or more restrained.
What is interesting about this cemetery, apart from the fact that numerous celebrities are buried there, is its fascinating architecture and the unique atmosphere that it emits. In the Père-Lachaise death seems to be tamed in profit of charm and poetry.
The historical beginning :
Paris in the Middle-Ages was overhung by seven hills. One of them situated by Ménilmontant, was named “Champ-l’Evêque” because it belonged to the bishop of Paris, who cultivated the fields. The domain was repurchased by a rich merchant named Regnault de Wandonne in 1430, who built a luxurious country house; the “Folie-Regnault”.
On the 11th of August 1626 the property became the Jesuits’ property. They turned it later into a convalescence house. King Louis XIV visited the property when he was fourteen, watching from the hill the fights of the Fronde. It then took the designation of “Mont-Louis”.
François d’Aix, seigneur de La Chaise also known as the Père Lachaise spent most of his time in the Jesuits’ house. He became the king’s confessor in 1675. He contributed to the beauty of the domain by enlarging it and creating gardens and fountains.
Due to heavy debts, the Jesuits were expelled in 1762. The “Mont-Louis” was put up for auction and sold several times. The 17 hectare domain was eventually given up for 180 000 francs to Nicolas Frochot then prefect of Paris.
The creation of the cemetery :
The prefect Frochot wanted to reorganise the burial of the deads preferably out of the city as it was already threatened by epidemics.
He decided to create a third cemetery, named “cimetière de l’Est”, located on the site of Mont-Louis. The cemetery finally took the name of “cimetière du Père-Lachaise”. Its design and fitting-out were entrusted in 1803 to Alexandre Théodore Brongniart, a neo-classical architect who imagined the cemetery as an English garden mingled with a contemplation place. Avenues decorated with lime and chestnut trees were preserved as well as the footpaths. The architecture was designed in such a way that you could walk along the tombstones without feeling too much the presence of death. The most famous sculptors and architects such as Chapu, David of Angers, Barrias, Garnier, Guimard, Visconti… took part in the creation of the cemetery.
The cemetery of the Père Lachaise opened the 21st of May 1804. The first person buried there was a five-year old girl named Adélaïde Pailliard.
Napoleon Bonaparte as a consul declared that “each citizen had the right to be buried, no matter his race or religion”, putting right the problems of the Church outcasts. Napoleon also imposed new hygiene standards and set out burial rules. The cemetery of the Père-Lachaise was one of the first modern and secular French cemeteries. It welcomed the burial places of every religion but also esoteric sects, ancient worships, and freemasonry.
When the cemetery opened, it was meant for the Parisians living in one of the four districts of the Right Bank. But some of these wealthy people did not want to be buried out of the city in a poor an popular district. Moreover, the Christians refused to have their graves in a place that had not been blessed by the Church.
The seventeen hectares of the cemetery being quite empty, the mayor of Paris decided to run an advertisement campaign transferring the ashes of Héloïse and Abélard, legendary figures of the Middles-Ages, as well as the ones of Molière and La Fontaine in 1817, in the aim of attracting customers.
A funerary chapel was erected in 1823 by Etienne-Hippolyte Godde at the exact place of the ancient Jesuit house. This same neo-classical architect created the monumental entrance a few years later.
A columbarium and a crematorium of a neo-Byzantine style were designed in 1894 par Jean Camille Formigé.
In the years 1820 to 1830, the cemetery became very fashionable amongst the Parisian upper middle class. Rich people wanted their power to remain even after their death by having magnificent gravestones built by the most famous artists of their century.
Civil wars and fights :
In spite of its atmosphere of peace and tranquillity, the cemetery of the Père-Lachaise saw the enrolling of two big fights. On the 30th of March 1814, after the abdication of Napoleon, a fight broke out between students and the Russian troops. During the Commune, between the 21 and the 28 May 1871, a civil war took place on the hill of the cemetery.
With its particular architecture, the cemetery of the Père-Lachaise helped the Parisians seeing death in a different way. Nowadays it remains one of the most beautiful green spaces of the capital city.
It still provokes a great interest and is definitely something you have to visit when you stay in Paris, because it has almost become a museum with all its curiosities.
Visitors come to gather their thoughts on the tombs of people they know, historic figures, or celebrities. Amongst the most famous people, stand the tombs of Honoré de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Jean-François Champollion, Jean de La Fontaine, Molière, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jim Morrison, Alfred de Musset, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissaro, Oscar Wilde, Gérard de Nerval, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Pierre Desproges… The cemetery is now reserved to the elite, and it is almost impossible now to get a chance to be buried at the Père-Lachaise.