The Brilliant Minds of Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." -- Oscar Wilde
It took me many trips to Paris before I ventured to Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris' village of the dead. Probably because it's a little off the beaten path in the 20th arrondissement. I wish I hadn't waited. I think it's a must see destination in Paris.
Why go to a cemetery you might be thinking? Isn't it creepy? Aren't there better things to do? Perhaps.
But our society has an obsession with death and decay. It's akin to a phenomenon I refer to as ruin lust. For a moment, we can nostalgically turn back time and be immersed in an important cultural moment or person from the past. We can bask in the wideness of history, and the layers and loss of time.
Steeped in history, Père Lachaise is the perfect place to walk among the dead and feel oddly connected to them.
Père Lachaise is the world's most visited cemetery. Its appeal lies not just in death, but in the fact that it's a brooding aggregation of French culture. Hundreds of celebrities, writers, artists, and musicians are buried there. This is where you come to honor the brilliant minds.
History of Père LaChaise
Père Lachaise wasn't always a funereal hot spot.
It opened to faint praise in 1804. Its name comes from Louis IV's confessor, Père Francois de la Chaise, who lived near the cemetery. Early on, people thought the cemetery was too far afield from central Paris. Funerals are supposed to be convenient affairs, after all.
But then, in a bold PR move, a few famous people's remains were disinterred and transferred, in a bid to make Père Lachaise the "it" place to lie in eternity. That effort included the playwright Moliere, the fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, and the star crossed couple Abelard & Heloise. People noticed. Soon, families clamored to be interred among the famous and popular cultural figures.
Now, there are approximately a million people buried in the moss covered tombs of the leafy, tree lined Père Lachaise. As you can imagine, securing entry is a challenge. You can only gain admission if you either lived or died in Paris. And the waiting list is long.
Bizarrely, plots are often leased for periods of 30 or 50 years. If the lease isn’t renewed, the remains are "evicted." They are exhumed, the grave is removed, and the space is given to the next person.
Famous Graves of Brilliant Minds
If you get off the Gambetta metro, you'll be near the rear entrance. Grab a map at one of the florist shops or the administrative office onsite. Better yet, download and print a map in advance.
There aren't any signs. (That would be crass.) You may get lost, but it doesn't really matter.
Père Lachaise has a beautiful collection of funereal art. Some unknown people wanted to lie among the crème de la crème of Parisian society, to be remembered with a striking tomb in a famous necropolis. Others, including many celebrities, have simple gravestones. Perhaps they tired of attention or were proverbial starving artists.
Here are the my personal greatest hits, people whose lives provide endless fascination and wonder.
Highlights of Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
1. Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright, is a superstar — a savior of outcasts, a romantic realist, and perhaps the world’s wittiest conversationalist and story teller. He finest works were The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Ernest.
Wilde's works often featured a protagonist with a secret sin or indiscretion, threatened with exposure. Life imitates art and, in 1895, he was convicted of sodomy and jailed for two years. In1900, Wilde died of acute meningitis, penniless and bereft but with his "gaiety of soul" still intact. His remains were eventually transferred to Père LaChaise in 1909.
Wilde's grave is cultishly popular. It's crowned by a 1914 sculpture, Modernist Angel, by Jacob Epstein -- an art deco stylized sphinx. The flood of visitors was unleashed by the 1998 film Wilde starring Stephen Frye and the centenary of Wilde's death in 2000.
In the past, the grave was covered in red lipstick kisses from devoted fans, perhaps an ode to the mention of a kiss ruining human life in his dark comedy A Woman Of No Importance. Unfortunately, in an unintentional way, the kisses defaced and eroded the famous sculpture.
In 2011, a glass surround was installed to thwart would be kissers. Not surprisingly, there are critics of that move. They argue that the kisses are as much a monument to and evidence of history as the gravestone itself.
And the amorous are undeterred. Now, people just kiss or write messages and poems on the glass barrier. Love will find a way.
2. Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein was an American writer, poet, and art collector. And, perhaps most importantly, she hosted a swishy Paris salon for artists and intellectuals at her home at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris.
I like to think of her as Picasso's muse, perhaps because of his famous portrait of her. The truth, though, is that she was a mentor to many artists, including Picasso's arch rival Matisse.
Stein also coined the term the "Lost Generation," which is the generation that came of age during WWI. The phrase was subsequently popularized by Ernest Hemingway who said, in his novel The Sun Also Rises, "You are all a lost generation."
Her last words to her partner Alice B. Toklas were "What is the answer?" When Toklas said there was no answer, Stein replied, "Then, there is no question!"
3. Edith Piaf
Edith Piaf's life was brief, but her fame international. She was the most famous French cabaret singer of the 20th century, her life a rags to riches story.
But the "Little Sparrow" had a difficult, soap opera type life. As a girl, she was abandoned by her mother, grew up in a brothel, and sang on the streets of Belleville for money.
Piaf's best selling song was the famous "La Vie En Rose," which was immortalized in a movie with that name. She lived big, had many lovers, and some serious addiction issues. After her lover Marcel's death, Piaf spiraled downward into alcoholism. That led to liver cancer and a premature death.
Piaf's grave is quite modest compared to others and not easy to find. She lies in a plot that reads "Famille Gassion-Piaf" – alongside her infant daughter, her father, and her second husband. The tomb is found in the southeast corner of the cemetery, between Avenue Circulaire and Avenue Pacthod.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, with his stage name Molière, was a master comic. In fact, he's considered the creator of the modern French comedy. Nothing was sacrosanct to him. He challenged orthodoxy right and left. Instead of proselytizing, he made the absurd come to life.
There is some doubt about whether the remains in Moliere's grave are really his, after disputes over the actual location of his burial site and the subsequent transfer and re-interment at Père Lachaise.
Molière has an entertaining death story. He had tuberculosis when he acted in his play, The Imaginary Invalid, about a healthy man pretending to be sick to get attention.
Soon, his fake coughs onstage turned to real coughing fits. The coughs turned bloody and he died moments after giving his final line, the audience hysterical with laughter.
5. Frederic Chopin
This is one of the most visited tombs in the cemetery.
In my mind, the classical Polish composer Chopin is indelibly linked to his long time lover and nursemaid, the feisty novelist and feminist George Sand. You can see snippets of their lives, and casts of their hands, at Paris' Musee de la Vie Romantique in the South Pigalle neighborhood.
But to most of the world, especially anyone who plays the piano, Chopin is one of the greatest Romantic composers and virtuoso pianists of all time. A bravado of harmonic and rhythmic daring, with lovely unforgettable melodies.
His best work was produced during his relationship with Sand. Always sickly and underweight, his health declined rapidly after their break up. He died at age 39 either of tuberculosis or pericarditis, a rare complication of tuberculosis.
Chopin's grave is a little tricky to find. It's watched over by Euterpe, the muse of music. She appears to weep as she contemplates a broken lyre. The Polish Embassy delivers a weekly batch of flowers to his grave.
The creepiest thing about the site is that it's a heartless grave. With his dying breaths in 1849, Chopin requested that his heart be removed and entombed in his beloved homeland of Poland.
6. Jim Morrison
This is the music shrine at Père Lachaise. Morrison's grave is small, but perhaps the most famous of all. Jim Morrison was the lead singer of the Doors, a 1960s American rock band. He still has a loyal bunch of "light my fire" fans who make the pilgrimage to his grave.
In 1971, Morrison moved to Paris with the intention of drying out, staying sober, and getting serious about his writing. But it was not to be. Paris was in the grip of a cocaine epidemic, and he caved.
After several months of living under a pseudonym and copious drug use, the willful rebellious singer died of a heart attack at 27. Most likely, it was caused by an overdose.
Morrison’s wish was to be buried in Père Lachaise. His grave is the busiest spot in the cemetery and a madhouse in the summer. You’ll find a guard stationed there at all times, to dissuade any rowdy behavior. Aside from flowers, his grave is littered with empty liquor bottles and handwritten letters.
7. Honore de Balzac
Before making it his final resting place, Balzac liked to stroll among the tombs at Père Lachaise, presaging his burial there.
Balzac is known as the author of The Human Comedy, a multi-volume collection of works about the middle class. Though he was one of France's greatest writers, he was chronically broke and fleeing creditors. He lived in 11 different Paris residences. One of them is now a free atelier museum in the 16th arrondissement, the Maison de Balzac.
At Père Lachaise, his headstone consists of a bronze bust with a quill at its base.
8. Sarah Bernhardt
The "Divine Sarah" Bernhardt was a staple on the Paris theater scene. She's known as the actress who "died the most." She captivated the world with her larger than life personality and scandalous escapades. Victor Hugo, with whom she had an affair when he was 70 and she just 27, nicknamed her “The Golden Voice.”
She also was forced to amputate a leg at age 70. But, still, she was unstoppable, back on stage shortly afterward.
Her grave's not easy to find. It doesn't face a road. It's near the top of the hill, off a path perpendicular to the road, in section 91.
She posed for many artists. George Clairin's 1876 portrait of Bernhardt is one of my favorite paintings at the Petite Palais, a lovely small free museum in Paris. She also appeared in Alphonse Mucha’s famous Art Nouveau posters.
9. Marcel Proust
Proust is the darling of French literature enthusiasts and PhD students.
Most of Proust's work was published posthumously, including his stream of consciousness novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). This must be the world's longest novel. At the time, it redefined the idea of the novel. It ruminates, in diary style hyper-aestheticism, on memory, perception, time, art, and love.
In particular, in his most widely read chapter, Proust wrote about how he ate a madeleine and memories of his childhood unconsciously came flooding back. This phenomenon is now known as a "madeleine memory" or "the Proustian moment." It's a key part of French culture.
Proust eagerly courted French high society, and dazzled with his brilliant conversation and talent for mimicry. But was routinely in ill health and was a resolute hypochondria. He died of pneumonia after a series of asthma attacks.
10. Abelard & Heloise
Abelard and Heloise are the French Romeo & Juliet, their passionate love story set 1000 years ago.
Abelard was a 12th century theologian and philosopher, the star of the budding university scene. Legend holds that he was employed as a tutor for the intellectually gifted and beautiful Heloise. Despite their 20 year age difference, they fell in love. Heloise became pregnant with their child.
Love's consequences were dire. They secretly married; a public marriage would've ended Abelard's career. Heloise was forced to become a nun (this may have been Abelard's doing). Abelard was castrated, probably by Heloise's protective uncle, and took holy orders.
The couple never saw each other again, but corresponded for life. The letters are almost as famous as the love affair itself. The legacy of those letters, and the nature of their relationship, is still a topic of discussion among literary scholars.
The remains of both lovers have been moved over time. So, as with Molière, it's unclear whether they're really beneath their tomb at Père Lachaise.
Whatever the truth, they were relocated to Père Lachaise in 1817, and are together at last. Inside their high steel spiked fence, lie prone statues in their own pavilion, silently proclaiming their love.
11. Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani is one of my favorite artists. I love the portraitist who lived in seedy and bohemian Montmartre with Picasso and his cohorts, at a time when innovative artists laid the foundation for modern art. Though he enjoyed huge posthumous success, during his life he was the archetypal starving artist.
At age 11, Modigliani suffered a bout of pleurisy — the first in a string of diseases that led to his early death at 35. Some experts speculate that his constant substance abuse was as an attempt to conceal his tuberculosis, a stigmatized disease.
Finding his grave took quite a search. It's the most hidden of hidden tombs, in section 96. You've got to be avidly searching to find it. It's not too far from Edith Piaf's grave, behind a huge bush.
He's buried with his lover Jeanne Hebuterne. When Modigliani died, she threw herself off a roof to her death while pregnant with his child.
12. Georges Rodenbach
Based on his tomb, it seems that Rodenbach didn't want to be buried. There's nothing like it. It looks like a man re-emerging from a grave to grasp a rose. It's one of the most dramatic tombs at Pere Lachaise.
The tomb is consistent with the romantic style of his writing and poetry, which focused on love and tragedy. He belonged to the artistic symbolist movement. Besides writing poetry, Rodenbach worked as a lawyer and a journalist.
Though synonymous with the city of Bruges, Rodenbach moved to Paris toward the end of his life where he created a cult of Bruges.
In 1895, the French painter Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer produced an extraordinary portrait of Rodenbach.
13. Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat was a French painter and the founder of a pioneering technique known as Neo-Impressionism or Pointillism. It's a technique that uses tiny detached brushstrokes of small dots or strokes of color to create an image. Seurat broke away from Impressionism, focusing on science, precision, and color theory.
He was a secretive and isolated man, hiding his mistress and children from his wealthy family. He died in 1891 at 31, likely of pneumonia or diphtheria. He was buried at Pere LaChaise, unable to finish his last ambitious work, Circus.
His large work Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is an icon of 19th century painting.
14. Eugene Delacroix
Eugene Delacroix was perhaps the most important of French Romantic painters.
His Liberty Leading the People draws massive crowds at the Louvre. It's an unforgettable image of Parisians taking up arms and marching under a tricolor banner representing liberty and freedom. The boy holding a gun up on the right is possibly the inspiration for Victor Hugo's Gavroche character in Les Misérables.
You can also see Delacroix's work at the Musée national Eugène Delacroix, a small atelier museum on the left bank.
Delacroix was a lover of literature and music. He attended the salons of Chopin and Sand. He never married, but had many affairs with models and possibly his housekeeper. He died in 1863 of tuberculosis, like so many others.
15. Théodore Géricault
Théodore Géricault was a gifted Romantic Period painter. He led a tortured life and may have been bipolar. He thought that "suffering was real and pleasures nothing but imaginary." He also died young, at the age of 32, likely of tuberculosis.
But he rocked the art world in 1819 with a radical painting, The Raft of the Medusa. It's a masterpiece and what I consider to be the best painting in the Louvre. Fittingly, a relief of the painting adorns Géricault's tomb at the cemetery, which is itself a work of art.