No matter how many negative things Americans say about the French (and lets face it, the list is pretty long) we have to admit they have a lot of style. Their language sounds like poetry. They have been the vanguard of every art movement dating back to the Renaissance. They know more about wine than anyone else and lead the world in fashion and cooking. Everything in France is pretty or tastes good or both. It should come as no great surprise that the French display elegance even in death.
At the end of the 18th century the principal cemetery in Paris (Holy Innocents Cemetery) was closed. It was over crowded and poorly managed and was generally considered to be an esthetic and public health menace. The bones and partially decomposed bodies were cleaned and removed to underground quarries under the city, where they are stored to this day. French entrepreneurs collected the fat from partially decomposed bodies and rendered it into soap and candles. Hopefully all of those products were used up long ago.
Four new cemeteries replaced the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents: Pere-Lachaise, Montmartre, Montpasse, and Passy.
Pere Lachaise is by far the most famous. This graveyard was named for the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in the Jesuit house on this site. It took a while for this cemetery to catch on with the fashionable Parisian dead. The first year it was open, Pere-Lachaise had only thirteen occupants.
To stir the interest of the public, the remains of famous Parisians were removed to the cemetery, including two well-known Parisian lovers (another thing the French are famous for). Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil were interned in a specially built
mausoleum. By tradition, lovers and lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.
The promotion worked. Today, the cemetery and the ossuary (where bones and cremains are stored after the leases on gravesites have expired) contain what’s left of 3,000,000 bodies. In order to be buried at Pere-Lachaise you have to have an association with France. Dying there is good enough. Jim Morrison is buried this cemetery. His grave has been the subject of a great deal of vandalism. Chopin is also buried at Pere-Lachaise
—no graffiti on his grave, but people still leave flowers.
Many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite are buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. There are traditional monuments to Parisian police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. There is also has a large collection of monuments that depict moments in the lives of the deceased. Some Montparnasse monuments are surrealistic and even abstract.
Montmartre Cemetery (originally known as Cemetery of the Quarries) is on the site of an old gypsum quarry, which was used as a mass grave during the French Revolution. Many of the monuments in this cemetery are exquisite (if somewhat depressing) sculptures that look as if they belong in a museum rather than a graveyard.
Passy Cemetery is located in the shadow of the Eifel Tower. It is situated in the
expensive residential and commercial districts of the Right Bank near the Champs-Élysées. by 1874 the small Passy Cemetery had become the aristocratic necropolis of Paris. It is the only cemetery in Paris to have a heated waiting-room (for visitors, not for residents).
Anyone who reads my fiction (Owl Dreams, Magic Popsicle Sticks)—or my blog—knows I have a special place in my heart for cemeteries. I am especially fond of cemetery art, and some of the best funereal sculpture in the world is found in these four cemeteries. I recommend visiting the four famous graveyards of Paris if you are ever traveling in the region. It is easy to see why people are dying to get in.