Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris

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Pere Lachaise 05 - view downA fabulous cemetery in Paris, France – one of the most famous cemeteries in the world, and quite possibly the most visited by tourists. In fact, at some of the famous graves it can get positively crowded. Away from fame and crowds, many marvellous discoveries of cemetery art can be made here. Moreover, there's a whole section with memorial monuments to various concentration camps – some of them quite stunning. A must-do for any so inclined Paris tourist. 
More background info: The cemetery was established in 1804, when cemeteries in the centre of Paris were banned (and even removed – see the catacombs). Together with Montparnasse, Montmatre and Passy (by the Eiffel Tower) it is one of the four "new cemeteries" that were then on the outskirts of the city. It is the largest of these, and as it had become ever more popular in the 19th century, it became rather crowded. This may have impaired the original park-like design and layout of the cemetery, but as far as its atmospheric character goes, it certainly gained from it.
It also is worth noting that Pere Lachaise has traditionally been of particular importance to the political left in France (even fights and shootings took place here, e.g. in 1871 when Paris Communards were shot in the cemetery grounds – look for the Mur des Federes, in the top right corner of the cemetery for the relevant memorial).
To aid locating graves of particular individuals you should either pick up a map at the entrance, or plan ahead using the cemetery's highly interactive website ( – it does not list the memorials, however). If you just want to see the two most famous ones, Jim Morrison's and Oscar Wilde's, you can probably do without any maps or guidance – just follow the crowds in the relevant sections: Jim is in section 6 in the southern lower part, Oscar is in section 89 on Avenue Carette in the central eastern part at the top only a few sectors away from the concentration camp memorial monuments.
What there is to see: It's simply an enchanted and beautiful cemetery that is captivating just as a necropolis/park to wander around in and take refuge from the hustle and bustle of busy Paris. Many consider Pere Lachaise the most beautiful cemetery in the world, and it is hard to disagree with that …
It's also a prime tourist attraction and a lot of people seem to come with the main intention of seeing particular graves of famous people interred here. One favourite is Jim Morrison, whose grave is, however, an extremely modest affair and not much to look at at all.
Another favourite is Oscar Wilde, and his grave is (fittingly) more flamboyant: a large, very modern sculpture of a gravestone, whose surface is covered with kiss-marks (apparently people still use lipstick to leave their mark thus even today) and even graffiti inscriptions – clearly in defiance of the sign that admonishes against doing so. The strangely Egyptian looking statue is said to have originally sported a graphic enough part of the male anatomy to outrage the more puritan cemetery-goers, so that it was first covered up, later the "member" was even hacked off completely … You can still see the "stump". And even close to this, there are kiss marks … Stardom in death.
Other famous names at Pere Lachaise include Honore de Balzac, Claude Chabrol, Maria Callas, Frederic Chopin, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein and lots more. Many graves of less well-known names, however, exceed these famous ones by ingenuity of design or sheer gothic pathos. Just wander around and keep your eyes open.
An especially striking part of the cemetery is the enormous Columbarium arranged around the almost mosque-like crematorium. It's a huge system of walls containing niches for urns – those in use covered by small headstones, those not yet in use open, but often with a potted plant or other such decoration in them. There are rows and rows of niches, in a two-storey system, with stairs leading up to the upper level. And there's more underground: another two subterranean storeys of more rows of urn niches and plaques, many adorned with flowers. It's cold and only dimly lit down here, which only enhances the spooky atmosphere …
Finally, there's also a series of memorials to the victims of various Nazi concentration camps of WWII – and it is these that add a particular extra-dark edge to the place that goes beyond the gothic-dark romanticism of graveyard aesthetics and even has a few almost shocking elements in store:
Some of the memorial monuments are comparatively modest affairs of classic stark design, such as those for Flossenbürg and Dachau, both of which feature the red triangle which marked the category of political prisoners in the camp system.
The one for Auschwitz-Birkenau is dominated by a strangely alien-like figure protruding out of the dark grey lava stone block, which, though rather abstract, does have a certain unsettling effect.
Ravensbrück is represented by a sculpture of a pair of tied-up giant hands of yellow sand-stone. Neuengamme, on the other hand, got a sandstone sculpture that is unfittingly serene, just a female figure kneeling behind a block of stone.
The Mauthausen monument features a bronze figure nestled against the stepped side of the monument – obviously representing the "Todesstiege" ('stairs of death') of Mauthausen's quarry.
One of the most graphic monuments is the one for Buchenwald (and Mittelbau-Dora): three bronze figures of skeleton-like camp inmates, one of them clearly dead or dying, supported by the other two.
Sachsenhausen (Oranienburg) has one of the largest and most striking monuments – it involves a huge figure of a man seemingly lifting of towards the heavens.
More abstract again is the memorial for Bergen-Belsen on the other side of the path –it also features, however, a set of footprints in its concrete front part, probably to symbolize the death marches to this camp when many of the others closer to the fronts were "evacuated". This ties in with the listing of many such camps' names on two plaques to the side of the footprints, including ones not otherwise represented at Pere Lachaise, such as Groß-Rosen and Stutthof.
Also on this side of the path is the more recent monument for Natzweiler-Strutthof, which was the only concentration camp on French soil. It picks up the red triangle theme again, in two ways: the whole monument is shaped like such a triangle and at its lower pointed end is another triangle, in red with the letter F (for French, obviously) set in it. The main feature, however, is the drastic sculpture of a withered man, half skeleton, lying across the centre of the monument.
By far the most stunning of all these memorials is, in my view, the one for Auschwitz III Buna-Monowitz. Atop a granite block, at the top of a few steps, is a group of dejected and exhausted-looking figures, one of whom is pushing a wheelbarrow with a presumably deceased (or too weak to walk) fellow inmate. This ensemble (inaugurated in 1993) I found the most heart-breaking of the lot – and I'm pleased (if that's the right word) that this almost forgotten third part of Auschwitz gets such a powerful mention here for once.
Some of the monuments have varying amounts of explanatory text on them, mostly in French, though the Dachau monument also features a large plaque in English at the foot of the structure.
In between the memorials for the camps are also a few more commemorating the Resistance, communists, forced labourers, etc. – and just behind the string of monuments a large plaque set in an otherwise bare stretch of inner wall commemorates the communards who were shot at this very spot in 1871.
This ensemble of memorial monuments is to be found in or near division 97 towards the top (south-)eastern-most section of the cemetery, near the Porte de la Reunion.
Location: in the east of Paris, in the 20th arondissenment (district), a good two miles (3.5 km) from the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame.
Google maps locator: [48.860,2.393]
Access and costs: easy to get to and free.
Details: to reach the cemetery from central Paris take the metro, either to the station Pere Lachaise (M2, M3), which takes you to the lower main entrance, or to Gambetta (M3), which isn't far from the back entrance (walk down Avenue de Pere Lachaise) – that way you can start at the top of the hill and its an easier downhill stroll. Also, the graves and memorials likely to be of more interest to the dark tourist are located in this end of the cemetery (only Jim Morrison's, if you need to see it, is in the lower part down the hill). If you want to pick up a printed map, you can get these for free from the main entrance – I've read somewhere that you have to obtain them from the cemetery office, but I found mine just lying out on a ledge right by the main entrance gate (maybe some are also available like this at the Gambetta entrance?). There are also enlarged maps on panels at various points within the cemetery.
Opening times: daily from 8 a.m. on weekdays (8:30 and 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays/holidays respectively, and closes at 6 p.m. in summer and at 5:30 in winter.
Admission: free.
Time required: really depends on how much you want immerse yourself in this necropolis. Just taking a quick glance at a couple of famous graves and having a bit of a stroll can be done in an hour or two, but the place is worth a little longer than that … you could even spend at least a whole day here.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Paris.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Paris.
  • Pere Lachaise 01 - main entrancePere Lachaise 01 - main entrance
  • Pere Lachaise 02 - map panelPere Lachaise 02 - map panel
  • Pere Lachaise 03 - park-likePere Lachaise 03 - park-like
  • Pere Lachaise 04 - peacefulPere Lachaise 04 - peaceful
  • Pere Lachaise 05 - view downPere Lachaise 05 - view down
  • Pere Lachaise 06 - weeping beautyPere Lachaise 06 - weeping beauty
  • Pere Lachaise 07 - mourning togetherPere Lachaise 07 - mourning together
  • Pere Lachaise 08 - double-facedPere Lachaise 08 - double-faced
  • Pere Lachaise 09 - headlessPere Lachaise 09 - headless
  • Pere Lachaise 10 - flower detailPere Lachaise 10 - flower detail
  • Pere Lachaise 11 - musical tombPere Lachaise 11 - musical tomb
  • Pere Lachaise 12 - no, not a monument to dead BeatlesPere Lachaise 12 - no, not a monument to dead Beatles
  • Pere Lachaise 13 - pigeon fancyingPere Lachaise 13 - pigeon fancying
  • Pere Lachaise 14 - unusual pelicanPere Lachaise 14 - unusual pelican
  • Pere Lachaise 15 - silence pleasePere Lachaise 15 - silence please
  • Pere Lachaise 16 - no entryPere Lachaise 16 - no entry
  • Pere Lachaise 17 - tilted gravePere Lachaise 17 - tilted grave
  • Pere Lachaise 18 - what a messPere Lachaise 18 - what a mess
  • Pere Lachaise 19 - spookily witheredPere Lachaise 19 - spookily withered
  • Pere Lachaise 20 - quiet pathPere Lachaise 20 - quiet path
  • Pere Lachaise 21 - Honore de BalzacPere Lachaise 21 - Honore de Balzac
  • Pere Lachaise 22 - Claude ChabrolPere Lachaise 22 - Claude Chabrol
  • Pere Lachaise 23 - Jim Morrison fenced offPere Lachaise 23 - Jim Morrison fenced off
  • Pere Lachaise 24 - simple gravePere Lachaise 24 - simple grave
  • Pere Lachaise 25 - more flamboyant for Oscar WildePere Lachaise 25 - more flamboyant for Oscar Wilde
  • Pere Lachaise 26 - hacked short but still adoredPere Lachaise 26 - hacked short but still adored
  • Pere Lachaise 27 - crowd visiting OscarPere Lachaise 27 - crowd visiting Oscar
  • Pere Lachaise 28 - ColumbariumPere Lachaise 28 - Columbarium
  • Pere Lachaise 29 - two levelsPere Lachaise 29 - two levels
  • Pere Lachaise 30 - you and not yet mePere Lachaise 30 - you and not yet me
  • Pere Lachaise 31 - crematoriumPere Lachaise 31 - crematorium
  • Pere Lachaise 32 - more in the underground comlumbariumPere Lachaise 32 - more in the underground comlumbarium
  • Pere Lachaise 33 - gloomy and coldPere Lachaise 33 - gloomy and cold
  • Pere Lachaise 34 - memorial monuments sectionPere Lachaise 34 - memorial monuments section
  • Pere Lachaise 35 - Flossenbürg and MauthausenPere Lachaise 35 - Flossenbürg and Mauthausen
  • Pere Lachaise 36 - DachauPere Lachaise 36 - Dachau
  • Pere Lachaise 37 - plaque for DachauPere Lachaise 37 - plaque for Dachau
  • Pere Lachaise 38 - NeuengammePere Lachaise 38 - Neuengamme
  • Pere Lachaise 39 - RavensbrückPere Lachaise 39 - Ravensbrück
  • Pere Lachaise 40 - Auschwitz-BirkenauPere Lachaise 40 - Auschwitz-Birkenau
  • Pere Lachaise 41 - Buchenwald-DoraPere Lachaise 41 - Buchenwald-Dora
  • Pere Lachaise 42 - Sachsenhausen-OranienburgPere Lachaise 42 - Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg
  • Pere Lachaise 43 - Bergen-BelsenPere Lachaise 43 - Bergen-Belsen
  • Pere Lachaise 44 - Natzweiler-StrutthofPere Lachaise 44 - Natzweiler-Strutthof
  • Pere Lachaise 45 - Auschwitz III Buna-MonowitzPere Lachaise 45 - Auschwitz III Buna-Monowitz
  • Pere Lachaise 46 - powerful sculpturePere Lachaise 46 - powerful sculpture
  • Pere Lachaise 47 - exhausted and in tattersPere Lachaise 47 - exhausted and in tatters
  • Pere Lachaise 48 - wheelbarrowPere Lachaise 48 - wheelbarrow
  • Pere Lachaise 49 - Mur de FederesPere Lachaise 49 - Mur de Federes
  • Pere Lachaise 50 - a communist pilgrimage sitePere Lachaise 50 - a communist pilgrimage site
  • Pere Lachaise 51 - an end and a beginningPere Lachaise 51 - an end and a beginning

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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