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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

History of Cimetière du Père Lachaise (Père Lachaise Cemetery)

What is Père Lachaise Cemetery?

Père Lachaise Cemetery is Paris’ largest cemetery and home to many important figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, which takes its name from the confessor to Louis XIV (Père François de La Chaise), a Jesuit who lived on the property.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery History

The Cimetière du Père Lachaise opened in 1804, but due to its location in a working-class area far outside the city, no one wanted to be buried there. By the end of its first year there were only 13 people interred in the cemetery. To fix this problem the administrators, with much fanfare, arranged for the remains of famous poet Jean de La Fontaine, and playwright Molière, to be moved to the graveyard. This marketing ploy was an instant success, with the number of burials increasing every year from that point on. Before long, it was a matter of status to be buried in the cemetery. Cimetière du Père Lachaise is now one of the largest necropolises in the world with anywhere between 300,000 to one million people finding their final resting place inside the grounds.

The list of famous names who find peace in the cemetery is as long as it is impressive. Nestled among the hundreds of thousands of bodies are names like Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Marceau, Sarah Bernhardt and Edith Piaf.

Arguably one of the most famous tombstones belongs to rock legend Jim Morrison. If you were to visit in the 70s or 80s you would have found neighbouring tombstones covered with graffiti and the area around his grave littered with alcohol bottles and flowers. In 1981, a bust of the singer was placed on the grave to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death, however it was stolen in 1988. Vandalism was such a problem that at one point a permanent security guard was placed by his grave to stop unruly behaviour.

columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery

Morrison’s grave is not the only one that has caused chaos in the cemetery. Victor Noir, a French journalist who was killed by Napoleon’s great nephew, became the centre of a rather risqué myth. It was said that if you kissed the sculpture adorning his tomb then you would be gifted with increased fertility, improved sex life or a husband within a year. This resulted in thousands of women making the pilgrimage to the tomb. In 2004, authorities tried to erect a fence around the statue in order to prevent people from touching Noir’s tomb, but there was such an outcry that it was eventually torn down.

There are several monuments dedicated to those who died in various wars as well as to victims of the Holocaust. It was twice the scene of armed fighting, once in 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Russians stormed the cemetery in the Battle for Paris, and the second time during the Paris Commune when 147 Communards were slaughtered at the Communards Wall. To this day, you can still trace bullet-holes that mark the site of the massacre.

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