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

Two women stroll along a lane in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery. On either side of the lane there are grey mauseoleums. The street is partially covered with brown autumn leaves.

I had long wanted to visit Paris’ storied Père-Lachaise Cemetery. However, during past jaunts to the ‘City of Lights,’ the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées, and Notre Dame had taken center stage on my itinerary.

During our most recent trip to Paris, our hotel in Paris’ 11th arrondissement was a short walk from the cemetery. With blue skies overhead and the ground just starting to be carpeted with crisp, autumn leaves, Shawn and I decided to embark on what we thought would be a short 30-minute stroll through the cemetery named after Père-Lachaise, Louis XIV’s confessor. Our walk ended up lasting a bit longer.

On the way there, we dined outdoors at Mère Lachaise, a bistro-style restaurant whose name plays off the neighboring cemetery’s. (In French, père means ‘father’ and mère means ‘mother.’) Not surprisingly, the bistro’s cook whipped up scrumptious fare for breakfast: tasty eggs, two café crèmes, and crunchy slices of a fresh, golden baguette. Simple fare, but fantastique! We then passed through Père-Lachaise’s handsome gates to enter the cemetery, with its cobbled streets, hunter-green iron street markers, and graceful old trees.

Paying Tribute to the Cemetery’s Musicians

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 these 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, someone had placed a green, clay lizard. A neighboring tree had a plethora of colorful messages and peace signs for ‘the Lizard’ scribbled on it, as well as “Welcome to the Other Side” and “Can You Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar?”

People from all walks of life 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. It seemed as though he was trying to escape the hustle and bustle of the city during his lunch hour.

Remembering Victims of War

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.

Symbolic Cemetery Architecture

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 or 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 full of happy days, or quiet, thoughtful moments. Some individuals laid to rest in the cemetery continued to be revered — even today — thanks to the gifts 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…

Headphones at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. On the left is a figure of a woman resting her head and shoulder on a headstone. On the right is a small mausoleum, with a sign that reads" Avenue Latérale du sud, 12th Division"
Trees cast shadows on the green lawn of Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There are a few headstones and mausoleums in the background.
Close-up of a stone mausoleum decorated with a human head flanked by two skulls with wings. There is a tree overhead.
Left: Detail of the entrance of Père Lachaise Cemetery. The Latin text reads “Spes illorum. Immortalitate Plena Est.” Right: The interior of a family mausoleum features a silhouetted cross with a stained glass background.
Left: Detail of the entrance of Père Lachaise. The Latin phrase Spes illorum immortalitate plena est translates to “Their hope is full of immortality.” Right: The interior of a family mausoleum.
Two sepia portraits of a man (left) and woman (right) decorate the grave of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Left: A bouquet of pink artificial roses is stuffed into an iron gate to a mausoleum door. Right: Headstones and two green street signs on a street in Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Two intersecting, green street signs in Pere Lachaise Cemetery read: Pere Avenue Casimir Perier and Chemin Bichat.
Grey mausoleums of varying sizes line a cemetery street with the green foliage of trees overhead.
Edith Piaf's grave in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There is a copper crucifix laying on top of the gray memorial and an urn filled with flowers is set on top of the memorial. The grave reads: "Louis Alphonse Gassion 1881-1944, Madame Lamboukas dite Edith Piaf 1915-1963, Theophanis Lamboukas dit Theo Sarapo 1936-1963"
The grave of French singer Edith Piaf; her father Louis Alphonse Gassion; and her second husband, Theo Sarapo.
Jim Morrison's headstone in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There are several items sitting on top of the square stone memorial including an angel's head, flowers, and a green clay lizard. The headstone reads: "James Douglas Morrison, 1943-1971"
Grave of American singer and songwriter Jim Morrison.
Near Jim Morrison's grave in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery grows a tree whose trunk contains grafitti from fans. Here you can make out a red heart and the words "Welcome to the other side."
Messages scribbled onto a tree near Jim Morrison’s grave.
Left: Near Jim Morrison's grave in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery grows a tree whose trunk contains grafitti from fans. Right: A woman walks past a grave dedicated to Resistance heroes. The text reads "Aux heros et martyrs de la Resistance fusilles par les Nazis."
Left: A tree near Jim Morrison’s grave. Right: A memorial to Resistance fighters who died during WWII.
Frederic Chopin's grave in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in paris features a white statue of a seated woman hunched over in grief. It is bordered by a black iron gate. A red Polish flag is draped over the gate.
Left: Grave of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. Right: Fragments of a note left on Chopin’s headstone. A treble clef is drawn on the rock paperweight.
Close-up of the white headstone of Frederic Chopin. It reads: "A Fred Chopin. Frederic Chopin. + Le 17 Octobre 1849."
Detail of Chopin’s headstone.
A man walks on a street in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery. He is surrounded by trees and there are hundreds of headstones in the background.
A stone mausoleum resembling a small castle with four towers sits beside other headstones in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Left: Headstone of author J.B. Clement, the author of the book, Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry Season). A sculpted likeness of the man's face is surrounded by a green wreath with red cherries. Right: Mausoleum of the Famille Daumy. A statue of a woman stands with a large dog in the entrance of the mausoleum.
Graves of names I did not recognize, nevertheless I thought the artwork was noteworthy. Left: author J.B. Clement, the author of the book, Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry Season). Right: Mausoleum of the Famille Daumy.
A white stone mausoleum features two women in long gowns holding a basket of flowers. To the right there is a sign that reads "Avenue Circulaire. 93rd Division."
Two busts - one female and orangish, and another male and white - stand atop a headstone. The words "Famille Scapini" are written on it.
A rectangular headstone features abstract concentration camp figures. Inscribed on it are the words "Buna Monowitz Auschwitz III et ses kommandos." Below another plaque reads, "Auschwitz, n'oublions jamais."
A memorial dedicated to victims of Buna Monowitz and Auschwitz concentration camp victims. Below it another sign reads, in French, “N’oublions jamais — never forget.”
A sign on a stone wall in Père Lachaise Cemetery reads: "Aux morts de la Commune 21-28 Mai 1871"
A memorial for those killed during the Paris Commune in 1871.
A brick street in Pere Lachaise Cemetery is partially cast with shadows from green trees overhead. To the right there is a green bench. Headstones are visible in the background.

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. 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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