A cemetery may seem a strange choice as a tourist attraction, but Per Lachaise is no ordinary city graveyard.This sprawling Paris necropolis has turned remembrance into art………
Paris’s largest and most celebrated cemetery first opened its elegant gates in 1804. After getting off to a slow start (it was considered by many to be too far outside of the centre of Paris) it became within two decades the most desirable residence for the city’s fashionable deceased. The rise in popularity was due in no small part to a deliberate if somewhat macabre promotional strategy thought up by the administrators in charge of the site which involved transferring the remains of several notable citizens from their original places of interment to new plots within Per Lachaise.
The cemetery takes its name from Pere (Father) Francoise de La Chaise, the priest who took confession from King Louis XIV. Pere de La Chaise belonged to a Jesuit order which in the late 17th century lived on the site of the current cemetery. A former chapel now serving as the cemetery office stands near to the main entrance on the spot of the former Jesuit residence. Visitors can call in for a map which shows the tombs of the famed of Paris.
Not all of the graves in this cemetery are grand or eccentric; many simple headstones soberly and humbly mark the final resting places of ordinary Parisians.
There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, my own particular favourite being the tiny house-like structures which often contain a single chair for quiet moments of sitting and remembering.
The cemetery, like the city, is divided into arrondissements, or zones. The more modern sections are at the back near to the crematorium, an impressive Byzantine-like building with a multi-level columbarium where remains are housed in niches within the walls. Some are quirky and beautifully crafted, probably reflecting the personalities of those whose remains repose there. The columbarium structure has the appearance of an art installation.
Near to the rear entrance of Per Lachaise is a beautiful memorial erected to the memory of the 228 victims of Air France Flight 447, which fell out of the sky whilst flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. The clear Perspex structure shows 228 birds in flight, one to represent each passenger, which I think is quite lovely.
Over 3.5 million visitors pass through the gates each year and many of them come to pay tribute to Jim Morrison: icon, legend and front man of 1960s rock band, The Doors. Morrison died in Paris in 1971, aged just 27 years, an official cause of death never recorded, though speculation at the time was rife, and still is. Jim Morrison was not only a talented musician but also a poet and film maker. In the 1970s and ’80s, the grave took on a shrine-line status. Fans would gather and leave mementos and lines of poetry expressing their admiration. Another tradition which sprang up was that of leaving chewing gum on a nearby tree; this still continues. I didn’t feel inspired to contribute, though many others did.
My last visit to Per Lachaise was in October 2014 and metal railings had already been erected around the grave, though they presented no obstacle at all to the agile youth and youthful in spirit who wanted to place their flowers and trinkets at the grave. More recently the free and easy behaviour of some fans has come to be considered by the cemetery authorities to be a nuisance and disrespectful, and there have even been suggestions that Jim’s remains be relocated to his country of birth, the USA.
In my thirties I became very interested in French literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I must add that I read these great works in English translation, as my high school French could just about stretch to ordering a coffee and a baguette. I lost myself in the novels of Andre Bretton, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Violette Leduc to name a few, and out of this emerged a great interest in Paris. One much revered author who I never really took to was Marcel Proust. I acknowledge his talent, and the famous ‘madeleine moment’ analogy really struck a chord with me as with many; I persevered with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, but could continue no further. The legendary writer is laid to rest in Pere Lachaise.
Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and novelist, died in Paris in 1900 (see my blog about this). He left England in disgrace after release from a prison sentence for gross indecency. Wilde was married and a father of two children but had been involved in relationships with several men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas whose father, the Marquis of Queensbury, was instrumental in bringing about Wilde’s fall from grace.
It is tradition to leave a token of appreciation in the form of a kiss. Visitors should put on their brightest lipstick and pucker up to the sphinx. It’s not possible to get near to the sandstone any more as it is surrounded by a Perspex barrier at the request of Wilde’s descendants who are required to foot the bill for keeping the grave in good repair. The smooching continues on the Perspex and I couldn’t leave Per Lachaise without adding my own mark of respect.