If Headstones Could Talk: Pondering at Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery

I had long wanted to visit Paris’ famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery, yet during past jaunts to the ‘City of Lights,’ La Tour Eiffel, the Champs Elysées and Notre Dame had taken center stage on my itinerary. During our recent trip to Paris, our hotel, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, was just a brief promenade from the cemetery. With blue skies overhead and the ground just starting to be carpeted with crisp, autumn leaves, we decided to embark on what we thought would just be a 30-minute stroll through the well-known cemetery named after Père-Lachaise, Louis XIV’s confessor.
On the way there, we dined outdoors at Mère Lachaise, a bistro-style restaurant that plays off the neighboring cemetery’s name. (In French, père means ‘father’ and mère means ‘mother.’) Not surprisingly, the bistro’s cook whipped up scrumptious fare for breakfast:  amazingly-tasty eggs, two café crèmes and crunchy slices of a freshly-baked golden baguette. The French have an amazing way of making the simple taste fantastique!

We then crossed through Père-Lachaise’s handsome gates to enter the cemetery, with its cobbled streets, hunter-green iron street markers and graceful old trees. Père-Lachaise is Paris’ largest cemetery consisting of 118 acres (48 hectares) of headstones and mausoleums that mark the final resting places of numerous prominent writers as well as political heroes and war victims. We chose to pay tribute to French chanteuse, Edith Piaf; Polish classical composer, Frédéric Chopin; and American Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors.

Visitors who came before us had remembered the three musicians in different ways. Piaf’s grave was simply adorned with roses; Chopin’s was garnished with a Polish flag and hand-written messages from music fans. One person had drawn a treble clef on a rock and placed it atop a note so that it would not be carried away by the wind. On Morrison’s headstone was perched a clay lizard. A neighboring tree had a plethora of colorful messages and peace signs for ‘the Lizard’ scribbled on it: “Welcome to the Other Side” and “Can You Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar?”

A diverse group of people ambled about the cemetery lanes. With brochures in hand and select graves marked, French and international tourists looked like they were on a scavenger hunt. Locals carried flowers and tools so that they could tend to graves. A lone young Parisian businessman walked through the little streets, with his lunch in hand, trying to escape the hustle and bustle of the city during his lunch hour.

In plot No. 97, near one of the cemetery’s outer walls, there stood countless memorials to the victims of Nazism and Fascism: copper statues with skeletal silhouettes, figures wearing striped concentration camp uniforms, stone hands to remember women who died in a concentration camp. Another wall remembered the 147 Paris Commune rebels who were executed there in 1871.

Like a home with a door propped open to welcome visitors inside, some mausoleums’ iron gates stood ajar, allowing curious onlookers to peek within. One interior looked as though it hadn’t changed in a century. A wooden chair with a caned seat was placed just in front of the altar, as if waiting for descendants to come sit upon it and pay their respects. Regrettably, many graves were dilapidated, covered in moss, their valuables long ago plundered. A number of stained glass panels were chipped away. Some of the iron forming their backbones twisted and bent inwards, causing the entire panel to angle. I was surprised to even find a mausoleum bearing my maiden name’s French ancestor – Baillet. I gingerly cleaned the smoky glass with my finger so as to be able to make note of the names engraved inside.

Around each corner were quirky memorials that offered a glimpse into the life or interests of the person buried there: a cherry-adorned headstone for the composer of a song titled “Cherry Season,” a mausoleum fashioned like a miniature castle, and a copper cello placed on the grave of a musician. Some headstones gave clues as to the physical appearance of the person buried there: the sepia image of a couple was emblazoned on one grave, their eyes staring back at us. Others had copper busts perched atop the gravestones. Another woman was depicted with a 1920’s bob hairstyle and a loyal dog at her feet.

We noted that every person buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery had a unique story to tell – some led tragic lives; others’ lives were plentiful with happy days, or quiet, thoughtful moments. Some individuals laid to rest in the cemetery continued to be revered – even today – thanks to the gifts that they left behind in the form of music or writing. As we meandered back into the bustling Parisian boulevards, we remarked how imperative it is for one to chase his or her dreams and lead a meaningful life, how important it is to make the hyphen in between those two numbers the grandest of dashes…

Where in the World?

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and a co-founder of Eloquence. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta, as well as Heidelberg, Germany. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

4 thoughts on “If Headstones Could Talk: Pondering at Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery

  1. Trish- I love to wander this place. As morbid as it may sound, I find it very interesting…And always an adventure to see who/what is camped out by Jim Morrison’s resting place.

    1. Hi Jan, agreed! We planned on exploring the cemetery for just about 45 minutes, but spent the entire morning there! If the Louvre and the Notre Dame ascent hadn’t been awaiting us, I think we could’ve stayed all day. Jim Morrison’s grave was rather quiet that day… We hosted several exchange students when I was in high school, one of whom was French. When he returned to Paris, following 10 months at our home (he really got into American music and the Doors while in the U.S.), one of the first things he did was make a pilgrimage to Jim’s grave. Thanks for dropping in and hope your new job is going well. :)

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