Passages of past

We’re living in onerous times ladies and gents. And whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s beginning to become extremely difficult to separate yourself from the many toxic forces at work in today’s world. As you may have read before, when times are tough and positive reflection is needed (when it’s nice out and Downton Abbey re-runs fall short), I often choose to hang out in one of Paris’ many cemeteries. Odd I know, but you’ll soon learn the attraction, and for our lesson to begin we must convene at one of the city’s most famous (and the most visited necropolis in the world) – Père Lachaise.

I haven’t covered it before since it’s never been my aim to focus purely on Paris’ greatest hits, but rather draw attention to the less obvious, but no less delightful locations to be found on the capital’s map. Also on my agenda is a wish to highlight those must-see sites that are free, or at least don’t cost the earth, since we’re in a city with a reputation for being a financial drain of mythical proportions for would-be tourists.

And so we find ourselves in the 20th arrondissement in the city’s first and largest municipal cemetery (44 hectares), established in 1804 and named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709). Created on the site of the latter’s Jesuit dwelling by newly proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, it was forged under the leader’s declaration that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and picked up the slack along with the city’s other large burial sites at Montmartre, Montparnasse and Passy after the closure of the central Cimetière des Innocents in 1780.

Designed by Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, although it houses 70,000 burial plots today and has accepted an estimated million individuals over the years, initially it struggled with a bit of an image problem; being so far out of the city it didn’t attract many takers. Thanks to a clever marketing strategy, notables were transferred there to encourage would-be ‘guests’, first revered writers Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804, then philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and his writer-nun lover Héloïse d’Argenteuil in 1817 (their tomb, left). Rumour has it if you leave a letter here, your chances of finding true love will be greatly increased.

The plan worked, and the plots were soon hotly coveted, with ordinary working Parisians being laid to rest alongside political heroes, celebrated artists and colourful famous names. ‘Grave spotting’ might sound macabre, but checking out the list before you go and plotting a route based on your own ‘greatest hits’ (printable map here) is a sensible way to negotiate the vast avenues and winding paths (I chose to pay my respects in particular to Paris planner Baron Haussmann and fountain philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace). Say hi to the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (his be-lipsticked tomb pictured right before it got cleaned up and sealed off) Edith Piaf and Colette, amongst many other well-knowns, if you happen to pass by.

Alongside avenues of telephone box-sized upright tombs and flat burial stones, you’ll also find many commemorative monuments including beautiful statues in remembrance of (amongst others) victims of war, concentration and extermination camps, aerial accidents, the French Revolution of 1848, and municipal workers. There are dedicated religious enclosures in respect of the different faiths laid to rest here, and the Monument aux Morts is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Parisians. There’s something about being immersed in a place of quiet contemplation with layers of history in the air that introduces a sense of calm; perhaps a reminder of the trials and tribulations, and ultimate fragility and finality of the human experience.

From plaques and simple headstones to elaborate mausoleums, each plot has a story to tell, and it’s in equal measures fascinating and sobering trying to hear them all. Believe it or not yours could still be one of them once you shuffle off the mortal coil, if you’ve lived or die in Paris (still hope for me!) and you have enough cash to purchase a lease. Though if you’re lucky enough to call this your final resting place, there’s not much ‘final’ about it, except if you’re rich enough to afford a perpetual lease, if not, you’re only set for 10, 30 or 50 years, with remains then transferred to the Aux Morts ossuary (a sort of mini catacombs). Not that it’s a good thing to think about death in these negative times, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared….

8 boulevard de Ménilmontant, Paris, 75020, metro Phillipe Auguste or Père Lachaise. For more information on access, opening times and the like, click here.

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