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Cimetière du Père Lachaise

(The place where the famous rest)

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, located in the east of the city, is Paris's loveliest burial ground. The cemetery, which covers 44 hectares, contains 100,000 burial places and since opening has had over one million burials.

The main entrance is on Boulevard de Ménilmontant where visitors can pick up maps showing locations of some of the more famous gravesites. Walking through the cemetery, the older parts seem to make use of above ground burial; the tiny houses are actually small chapels in a state of disrepair. Chestnut trees line some of the avenues, giving the visitor the relaxing feel of a country park. Famous people in history that now rest there in peace include the writer Oscar Wilde, rock singer Jim Morrison, the writer Marcel Proust, actress Simone Signoret, and composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin.

When I visited a few years ago, wandering between the tombs and gargoyles that flank a crisscross of meandering pathways over the vast expanse of the cemetery, I was struck by the ambience that lingered in the shadows of these famous names. Many arrows were inscribed on pathways and smooth stones to point the traveller towards the final resting place of "JM" or "Jim." In his poem "Paris Journal", this 60's icon of rock-and-roll had written: "So much forgetten already, So much forgotten, So much to forget." Only 27 years old, he had died in Paris in 1971 and it seemed his fans were determined not to forget him; film director Oliver Stone had paid ttribute to him in the film named after his rock group, The Doors. With some curiosity I followed the arrows to the hallowed place - but only to find a dishevelled and rather ordinary, unkempt grave. Remembrance, it seemed, now spared scant attention to his mortal remains.

Oscar Wilde's resting place provided stark contrast. The controversial writer who, in his own poetry, had immortalized the graves of Shelley and Keats, was himself now the object of much attention and affection at the graveside. The colossal tomb stood proudly, an imposing piece of modern sculpture, piled around with beautiful fresh flowers. Many admirers had left written notes, touching in their devotion. Others had left mementos - even a Paris subway ticket, carefully placed and secured with a small mound of stones.

And what of Chopin's grave? One of the most eminent composers of piano music, a man whose genius enlarged the technical range and the musical expression of the instrument through a remarkable body of work. He had died quite early, of tuberculosis, and in Paris. I followed my map to seek out his grave, and the music in my head was not his famous Funeral March but a light, delicate Nocturne, that at that moment had an almost mystical quality. I felt that there was something essential about the act of dying that could never be adequately expressed in words - could it be hinted at in music? I somehow expected to find a well-kept area, fresh flowers perhaps, but prepared myself to face the drab reality of yet another gravestone. The air was getting cold - soon Cimetière du Père Lachaise would be closed. I realized, with disappointment, that I had passed the place on the map where Chopin rested. An unspectacular grave that had been easy to miss? Only my natural frustration caused me to turn back and check. It was, in fact, almost hidden. Beautifully situated and raised somewhat from the main walkway, surrounded by beautiful shrubs. Chopin's grave struck a note of eloquent simplicity. And there, resting near the spotlessly clean marble, a lighted candle sent an unspoken message to a life completed. - Chris Docker
Photographic links to Père Lachaise

© 1996 Chris Docker
You are the person to browse through here since 12th Feb 1996

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