A Guide to Paris’ Hauntingly Beautiful “Final Destinations”
The meaning: cimetière = cemetery
The history: Paris is one of the few places in the world where a cemetery is considered a top-notch must-visit location. More than plain burial grounds, Parisian cemeteries are more like open museums with millions of stories to tell among century-old molded tombs often classified as historical monuments. Akin to the architectural and floral heritage of the city, they form a significant part of Paris’ open green spaces and are enjoyed by millions of tourists and locals per year. Taking an autumn walk in one of these mysterious and charming “cities of the dead” is always a moving and interesting endeavor. Stopping in front of the tombstone of a world-famous celebrity or a humble stranger often makes time stop for a while and invites you to share an intimate moment with the “dearly departed”- a journey charged with emotions, questions and thoughts that would take you away to a distant land which you can only imagine possible…
The classics: Designed in 1803 and built on the sloping grounds of a prior Jesuit residence, the Père Lachaise cemetery was named after Father La Chaise, Louis XIV’s confessor. Housing 300 000 graves, today it is Paris’ largest and arguably the world’s most famous cemetery, but interestingly this was not always the case. In the beginning no one wanted to be buried there because the place had “no history”. As a means to promote it, famous “bodies” (among which Molière’s and the tragic lovers Heloise and Abelard) were actually moved there in order to position the new graveyard as a place of prestige. With its poetically winding paths, peaceful rolling hills and elaborate mazes of crypts and graves, it’s no surprise that Père Lachaise makes the list of Paris’ top ten attractions. Notable figures have their resting place here: for a final rendez-vous with Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf or Jim Morrison, that’s the place to go.
Montparnasse: Open in 1824, the Montparnasse cemetery measures as the second largest one in Paris. Lying in the shade of 1,200 sophoras, maples, ash and lime trees, this serene park in the heart of the city was once a farm belonging to the Hotel Dieu hospital. Confiscated during the French Revolution, the land was later used as a burial ground for the dead whose remains were not claimed by relatives. An eternal home of many foreigners who have made France their second home as well as of much of France’s intellectual and artistic elite, today you could visit the lipstick-smacked gravestone of Baudelaire, wait for Godot by Beckett’s side, pass by the metro ticket-ridden tomb of Serge Gainsbourg (inspired by his song “The ticket puncher at Lilas”), post a letter in the mailbox of dark Romanian philosopher Cioran, play some hopscotch by Cortazar’s tomb, share a kiss over sculptor Brancusi’s famous statue “The Kiss”, or just ponder on Ionesco’s last quote: “Pray to the I don’t-know-who: Jesus Christ, I hope…”
Montmartre: Set in a rolling landscape, where Berlioz liked to stroll, the Montmartre cemetery is Paris’ third biggest cemetery, a peaceful resting place with sinister past. During the French Revolution, the abandoned gypsum quarries then abundant in the area were used as mass graves for the victims killed during riots – among them, hundreds of Swiss Guards who perished while defending the Tuileries in 1792. A popular tourist destination today, the cemetery is the final resting place of many artists who lived and created in Montmartre – like Dalida, Degas, Dumas Junior, Heine, Nijinsky, Offenbach and film pioneer François Truffaut.
The curiosity: The largest private cemetery in Paris, the Picpus cemetery, hosts the remains of French aristocrats guillotined during the French Revolution. Located five minutes away from the Place de la Nation, where the guillotine used to be situated under the Terror in 1794, a pit was dug to collect the decapitated bodies of “noblemen and nuns, grocers and soldiers, laborers and innkeepers”, all thrown in together. Later in the 19th century the parcel was converted into a cemetery we know today where only direct offspring of Terror victims can be put to rest to this very day.
Not to be Missed: Turns out “Pet Cemetery” is not just an example of Stephen King’s vigorous imagination. It’s a real place indeed. Built in 1899 and located on the outskirts of Paris, this historical curiosity is tailored to the needs of rich animal fanatics. What makes the world’s oldest pet cemetery really stand out is its great quantity of animal statues giving an eerier look to this abode already eerie enough. WWI dogs, movie dogs, police dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, hens, goldfish and hamsters are among the eternal residents, some of which coming with enthralling life stories to tell. Weird, unsettling and so utterly uncommon, Le Cimetière des Chiens is an uncanny and thrilling alternative to the rest of Paris’ more celebrated cemeteries. Enjoy your macabre stroll…