From ossuary to graveyard in one afternoon

L'avenue du Général-Leclerc
L’avenue du Général-Leclerc

22 November 2014

Leaving the catacombs behind we wandered, slightly dazed, onto L’avenue du Général-Leclerc, quite some distance from the place we’d entered l’empire de la Mort. Our first priority was finding somewhere to eat. We found a little place called Indiana Café where we thought we might get a snack and a coffee and went inside. The snack turned out to be a huge meal, a beautiful hand made burger that surprised us by coming with salad and fries. Of course I had coffee too.

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We dawdled a little over our meal, talking about the things we’d seen and the things we were going to see next. With the long walk, the long wait in the queue and the slow wander through the catacombs, the time was getting on and our next objective was quite some distance away. Commando wanted to go back to the hotel first to freshen up and my phone needed charging. After a little discussion we decided to use the metro to get back to the hotel and walk to our next destination from there, it was nearer to the hotel than the catacombs anyway so this made sense.

As it happened we were very close to a metro station and it was a direct route back to Gare du Nord. Quite why I hate the London Underground so much but don’t mind the Metro is a mystery, maybe it’s because it’s less crowded on the whole or perhaps it the lovely Art Nouveau entrances. Either way we were soon emerging outside our hotel where bicycles were chained to the wrought iron Metro decorations.

Paris Metro
Paris Metro

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After a quick freshen up and a boost to my phone charge we were soon back out on the street, map in hand, walking as quickly as we could as the light began to fade. There were no photo stops on this walk, not because there was nothing to see but because we didn’t have time to stop. Luckily, once we’d turned off Rue Lafayette it was basically one long straight road with little chance of getting lost.

We were making our way to Père Lachaise Cemetery. After the catacombs it may be beginning to sound as if we are getting a little obsessed with death but this cemetery is actually a big tourist attraction. Our main objective was to try to find Jim Morrison’s grave, something Commando had always wanted to see. How easy this would be remained to be seen. If there was time Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf were also buried there along with a host of other famous people.

As the wall of the cemetery came into view the sun was beginning to set. This was not good news as we knew the cemetery would soon be closing and we certainly didn’t want to end up lost and locked in. Of course I couldn’t resist a quick snap of the pinkening sky or the rather impressive entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery, much to Commando’s consternation.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

The sun was going down

Just inside the gate there was a knot of people peering intently at a map of the graves. Being rather short I couldn’t see very much but I tried desperately to find the numbers for the graves I was interested in while Commando, far taller, managed to quickly snap a picture of the map and find the number he wanted. Then we were off at a march, working against the clock.

The cemetery was unlike any I have ever seen, rows and rows of tombs, mostly the size and shape of telephone boxes, each with a door on the front where mourners can enter to lay flowers or pray. Some were very ornate and most were obviously very old and decayed, just how I like these things. Dashing along at top speed wasn’t really how I wanted to see things, I’d have preferred to wander slowly taking photos. As it was I couldn’t resist a few stops for some of the more enticing tombs. This meant I fell behind and spent a lot of time rushing to catch up.

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As cemeteries like Les Innocents in the centre of the old city of Paris became overcrowded and closed, several new cemeteries were opened. Père Lachaise Cemetery is the largest of these. In fact it is the largest in Paris and is both the first garden cemetery and the first municipal cemetery. It’s laid out like a little city with named streets and avenues, hills and valleys and the tombs look like rows of ancient little houses.

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The cemetery is named after the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise, who once lived there. In 1804, when Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor, he declared that “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion.” True to his word he created this cemetery, laid out by Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart that very year. The first person to be buried was a five year old girl. Her name was Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve and she was the daughter of the bell boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine but the plot was just a temporary concession.

Despite Napoleon’s efforts the people of Paris were not impressed. They felt it was too far from the city and many Roman Catholics shunned it because it hadn’t been blessed by the church. In the first year there were just thirteen burials. It was a very large, very beautiful white elephant until the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière were moved there. Numbers slowly climbed over the next thirteen years. Then, in 1817, the remains of legendary lovers Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, along with a canopy made from relics of the abbey of Nogent-sur-Seine were moved there.

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After this people were clamouring for burial plots and by 1824 the cemetery had to be expanded. There were four more expansions and today there are over a million bodies buried in Père Lachaise. Surprisingly new burials still happen, although the rules are very strict. Only those who die in Paris or have lived there may be buried there and there is a waiting list. Often the remains of many family members are buried in the same grave and some tombs contain many bodies buried over many years. These days leases are issued and, if a lease is not renewed, the remains are moved to the Aux Morts ossuary in the cemetery. Including these stored remains there are around three million bodies within the grounds.

Of course all this makes finding one single grave rather difficult, even with a map. At first we thought we were doing quite well, we seemed to be going in the right direction along the strange cobbled streets scattered with autumn leaves. Then we found ourselves leaving the street Jim Morrison’s grave was supposed to be on. It wasn’t until I spotted a  group of people a little way off the path that we realised the grave was quite hidden away in the trees behind some larger tombs. It was also surrounded by metal barriers put up because of several instances of vandalism.

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Unlike the large, house like tombs surrounding it, the grave was rather ordinary, a dark marble slab and headstone almost overwhelmed with flowers, photographs and small tokens. We stood at a distance, peering around another tomb and looked at it. The light was fading but I took some photos anyway. Beside it and outside the barriers the trunk of a tree was covered in multicoloured blobs of chewing gum. Quite what this is all about is beyond me but it was strangely attractive.

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With our main objective accomplished we wandered off in search of other famous graves but my misreading of the map from the tiny glimpse I’d got of it at the beginning and the fast fading light were against us. Even so there were plenty of other interesting sights, ornate doors, rusting doors even broken doors with stained glass windows behind them. Slightly lost, we walked through the city of tombs, stopping occasionally for a closer look with the dusk slowly closing in around us.

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A little van passed us, two men inside ringing a bell, obviously designed to usher people out of the cemetery before it closed. They smiled at us as they passed. Even though the light was slowly going I took a few more pictures of interesting graves. One had an artist  lounging on top of his tomb, brush in hand. Across the cemetery we could just make out the Eiffel Tower in the distance and the pink glow of the setting sun between the trees and through windows in the little tombs.

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Just before we turned the final corner I spotted one of the three war memorials. It would have been nice to wander for longer but all too soon we were on the long avenue littered with golden leaves that led us out of the city of the dead and back to the land of the living. The street lights beyond the wall seemed to turn the autumn trees to gold.

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It had been an interesting, if far too short, visit. At least it gives me an excuse to return to Paris, as if I needed one. It seemed a long walk back to Gare du Nord and we rounded off the day with a nice meal and, for Commando, a Grande Biere which turned out to be slightly grander than he’d expected. Sensibly, I stuck to coffee.

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Published by

Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

6 thoughts on “From ossuary to graveyard in one afternoon”

  1. I’m surprised Jim Morrison was able to get in, but I suppose money talks in Paris just as loudly as it does anywhere else. The wads of gum look like lichens.
    The tomb with the broken doors is a little disturbing, but that would be a great place to spend a day or two. There’s no telling who you might find in a place like that.

    1. Jim Morrison lived in Paris and died in a bathtub in a Paris hotel so I guess that qualified him. Money probably helped too though. I’d have liked more time to wander around and I really wish I’d found Oscar Wilde and Edit Piaf. There are lots of other very famous people buried there too so it would have been good to have time to wander.

    1. I think the fact that he died in Paris was probably more important than having lived there. He has been quoted as saying he wanted to be buried in Paris but, ultimately, being famous and having money was probably the most important thing.

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