Surprisingly, in Paris (the city of light), I have spent a good amount of time in cemeteries. Notably, in the necropolises of Montmartre and Père Lachaise.
The sites are serene, beautiful and ancient. Perhaps, ‘ancient’ is a relative term for this American. Walking on the winding cobblestone paths there is an overwhelming sense of stepping back in time. The frenzied city is all around, and yet, a peaceful quiet exists inside the gates. Even though crews maintain the cemeteries, it always appears to me nature is successfully taking back the departed.
Architecturally, I am drawn to the grave markers, burial chambers and mausoleums. They mark a design/stylistic point in time in Paris’ history. However, they also provide a unique window into the identity of the families. The markers or chambers share an expression or representation of the family. Sometimes only a modest few words are on the grave; sometimes a vase or planter is built in, signaling frequent visits with fresh flowers. In other instances, elaborate sculpture surrounds the grave. It’s all fascinating to me.
Père Lachaise is a famous site by French standards and I believe by global standards as well. Originally, it was a burial site considered too far out of town for Parisians. In the opening year, 1804, Père Lachaise had only 13 burials. In order to attract families to the 20th arrondissement, east of central Paris, a brilliant marketing effort was launched. The administrators of the cemetery moved the remains of several revered individuals to Père Lachaise. Very quickly the French started buying lots in order to be buried along side the famous.
Today it is estimated that over one million people are resting at Père Lachaise. Space is so limited that plots are leased for a 30 year timeframe. If the lease is not renewed, any unclaimed remains are exhumed, boxed and relocated to an onsite ossuary. In case you were hoping to claim a spot near Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Colette, Honoré de Balzac or Frèdèric Chopin, burial at Père Lachaise requires dying in the city of Paris or having lived your life in Paris. And then, of course, there is the matter of paying a handsome price tag for your spot.
All silliness aside, The Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau describes Père Lachaise as “a mix between and English park and a shrine”. I have to agree.