In the Père-Lachaise Cemetery

photo: cemetery pere lachaise

From uphill to downhill, with a line of gold on the horizon.

This International Necropolis Welcomes All

Paris:- Wednesday, 21. January 1999:- It is not especially cold for the month and there is little wind. The sky has a high screen of thin cloud and there is a bit of blue and gold in the west, too far away to make the Père-Lachaise cemetery look festive.

By the main entrance in the Boulevard de Ménilmontant there are very few people. There is a less imposing entry around the corner in the Rue du Repos and another one on the north-east side, not far from the métro station at the Place Gambetta. On foot, the cemetery is about a 1,505-metre walk up the Rue de la Roquette from the Place de la Bastille.

This puts the cemetery on the edge of the eastern 20th arrondissement, on hilly ground, with a winter view of the tower at Montparnasse. Trees probably screen it in summer, which is okay because it is the cemetery itself which is the view.

Just inside the main entry, there is a map showing who is buried where, with about a hundred famous names on it. This map looks simple enough with its principal avenue and its cross avenues; but it has circular avenues too on account of the hilly ground. Once you are about 100 metres away from the map, you are lost.

Well, not you, not me. The hundred famous dead people are lost. To havephoto: tomb, allan kardec a hope of finding anybody, you have to carry a map of the cemetery. But people I see with these look lost too. Best is to get close to where the person you are seeking is buried, then look around for a cemetery worker, or a member of the cemetery fan-club.

Many Brazilians make a long trip to place flowers around the tomb of Allan Kardec, intellectual founder of 'spiritism.'

Neither were around section 23 so I did not find Modigliani's tomb, and I did not stumble on Corot's, which is nearby. This is not too surprising as 835,278 people were buried here between May of 1804 and January of 1936. Michel Petrucciani, the jazz pianist, was buried here on Friday, 15. January 1999.

The only Paris cemetery I found somebody easily in was the tiny Saint-Vincent cemetery on Montmartre, and it was Utrillo. A cemetery worker showed me the way to Man Ray's plot in Montparnasse after I walked past it 17 times.

Not finding Modigliani leaves me with looking for nobody in particular, like many visitors who come here just for the stroll. The avenues are cobbled and I am glad I don't wear high heels but dubious about the new shoes I am wearing. Hiking boots would be just about right.

In the 12th century, this hill was called the Champ-l'Eveque because it belonged to the Bishop of Paris. In the 15th century, it was purchased by a wealthy merchant, Régnault de Wandonne, who moved into his 'Folie-Régnault' in 1430. 'Folie' at the time meant 'leafy place.' In August 1626, Jesuits bought the property for a rest-home.

When he became Louis XIV's confessor in 1675, Father François de La Chaise d'Aix - known as 'Le Père La Chaise' for short - had his residence here. Louis had visited the area in 1652, and it was therefore called Mont-Louis. By the time Le Père La Chaise died in 1709, the property had been considerably extended due to royal gifts.

Count La Chaise, head of the king's bodyguard, also had a place on Mont-Louis, which was known for its opulent parties on account of the guests who wanted to get to know the king's confessor better; in order to meet the king.

In 1763 the Jesuits were evicted and the property was purchased by the Baron family in 1771. However, ruined by the Revolution and the Empire which followed, the 17 acre area became the property of the Ville de Paris.

The city was looking for new cemetery locations and Brongniart the architect got the Pére-Lachaise job, which was ready for its opening on 21. May 1804 (1. Prairial, year XII, by the Revolutionary calendar). Paris had decided to clear out the cemeteries located near churchesphoto: small pyramid in the city, and this cemetery was chosen for those formerly buried in the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th arrondissements.

While there are many high pyramids and obelisks, this one may be the shortest.

At first, the new cemetery was named Cemetery de l'Est. The former owner of the property, James Baron, was buried in it in 1822, and the architect of it, Brongniart, in 1813. The cemetery was enlarged five times up to 1850, to reach 44 hectares, making it Paris' largest. Right from the beginning the cemetery has been multi-denominational.

Students from polytechnical schools crenelated the walls to transform the cemetery into a fortress during the battles of 1814, but the Russians captured it on the third assault. It was closed for a time when the Allies came back for another battle in 1815.

During the battles of the Commune in 1871, fallen 'Federals' were buried here; including those executed in the cemetery itself and in the battles in the Rue de la Roquette and the Place Voltaire. A total of 1,018 were killed in the repression.

The oldest identifiable bones in the cemetery belong to Abailard, who died at 63 in 1141 and Héloise who died 23 years later in 1164, also at the age of 63. The lovers' remains had an incredible journey, before being lodged in Père-Lachaise in November 1817. Henri III's widow, Louise de Lorraine who died in 1601, was moved here on the orders of Napoléon in 1806. Louis XVIII in contrast, was moved with great pomp from Père-Lachaise to Saint-Denis in 1817.

After the opening of the cemetery in 1804, the number of the famous names gets very long and reads like 200 years' worth of the Who's Who of France. The last 'name' on my list is Colette, who was buried in the cemetery in 1954.

The crematorium was built in 1889, near the cemetery's pinnacle. It is an eerie looking factory, with several domed chimneys; within a square of buildings containing high walls, full of niches for ashes. Nearly each niche has a marble face and quite a few are decorated with fresh flowers.

Curiosity takes me downhill to the 'Federalist's Wall' and it is very plain and simple, with a schoolyard beyond it. Along here are a parade of monuments to those who lost their lives in the extermination camps in the war.

I hadn't expected this. The sky has gotten a bit brighter and there is more light here. Within this row one monument stands out for me. It's inscription: 'A la mémoire de tous les Espagnols mort pour la liberté 1939 - 1945' and '10,000 dead and deported, 25,000 killed with the Resistance.'

To go back from here it is uphill, up a cobbled stone avenue, past simple plaques and elaborate tombs; some ancientphoto: spanish dead for france and some new. Every sort of fantasy is allowed but many of the monuments are so old, the inscriptions are illegible.

In a corner of no place in particular, I find a legible inscription. It reads, without translation, 'Here lie the mortal remains of J. M. N. Leroux de Prinssay of Stroketown Co Roscommon (Ireland) who departed this life on the 4th of 8.ber 1847. RIP'

"To the memory of all the Spanish..."

Relatively unknown in France, many Brazilians make a pilgrimage to visit the prominent tomb of Allan Kardec, whose theories are incorporated in 'spiritism,' which has a large number of followers in South America.

I guess this means that you, whatever you've done in life, wherever you have been born, have a potential plot waiting for you in Paris' Père-Lachaise cemetery.

It is comforting to know this as I descend into the evening that is falling in the Boulevard de Ménilmontant; to catch the métro to take the train, to walk down another hill through another cemetery with more than its share of Ferraris.

Guided Visits - Père-Lachaise Cemetery

In principle, there are guided visits to this cemetery every Saturday at 14:30. Guided visits, also at the same time, are programmed from April to November, on every 1st and 3rd Tuesday, and every 2nd Sunday. Meeting place: at the main entrance on the Boulevard de Ménilmontant. There are also a series of eight different 'theme' visits.

For the general visits, no reservations are necessary; and the fee in 1998 was 35 francs. There are also group rates. Info. Tel.: 01 40 71 75 60; Fax.: 33 1 40 71 93 56. Check the Ville de Paris Web site for Parcs, Jardins et Espaces Verts.

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