By Colette Davidson
The Père Lachaise Cemetery, located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, is the city’s largest cemetery and park. Extending over 110 acres of space, the cemetery counts 70,000 tombs and around one million bodies, holding some of the country’s most well known literary and artistic talents. While the idea of wandering through a cemetery may not seem like your idea of fun on a Sunday afternoon, there’s actually nothing morbid about Père Lachaise. The furry pine trees and gravel walking paths make for a tranquil space to explore and reflect.
The cemetery is made up of a collection of winding pathways, leading up, over, down and across the park. Suffice it to say, the only way you’ll find the tombs you’re looking for is by happening upon them accidentally or with one of the maps available at the entrance (Porte des Amandiers and Porte Gambetta). There’s also a massive crematorium near the center of the park, built in 1889, that holds fewer famous names than the rest of the cemetery but is still worth checking out.
Père Lachaise officially opened on May 21, 1804, following its inauguration by Emperor Napoleon I. At first, Parisians were reluctant to give the new cemetery a chance. But when the its urban planner Nicolas Frochot convinced authorities to rebury Moliere, La Fontaine, Abélard and Héloïse there in 1817, demand for burial space rose significantly. Since then, it has become the chosen burial spot for the rich and famous, such as Frederic Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright and Edith Piaf.
Père Lachaise gets around two million visitors per year and most of that number come to visit the tombs of those listed above, as well as dozens of other well known French and international figures. However, these visits haven’t gone unnoticed – for better or for worse. While Chopin’s tombstone is covered in well kept, blooming flower arrangements, Jim Morrison’s grave has become a dumping ground for beer bottles and cigarette butts from his supposed late-night partying fans. And recently, to the dismay of his admirers, cemetery staff erased the lipstick marks from epic romantic Oscar Wilde’s tomb and constructed a glass barrier around it.
The Père Lachaise cemetery has become so popular, in fact, that these days you’ll have to put your loved ones on a waiting list in order to be buried here. In order to meet demand, the cemetery has come to opening graves and putting multiple family members into one space (separated by shelves). Tombs range from small, discreet headstones to large monuments with intricate carvings or telephone booth-like structures where one has space to step inside.
The Père Lachaise cemetery can be reached by metro line 2, stopping at Philippe Auguste (the main entrance) or Père Lachaise (for the side entrance), or metro line 3, stopping at Gambetta (for easiest access to Oscar Wilde’s tomb).