For those travelers with rather morbid sensibilities or a strong appreciation for history, the cemeteries of Paris are like a portal into the artistic worlds of the past.
You can pay homage to your favorite painter or marvel at the monumental size of the hundreds of gravestones. These valleys of death tend to be less crowded, which can provide for peace and quiet but can also make it hard to ask for directions, as the walkways within can be labyrinthine. Be sure to find a map at the entrance.As an extended visit to a cemetery will require a great deal of walking, it is recommended that you wear tennis shoes, bring some snack foods, and water. Also be sure to take a bathroom break before entering, since there are no public toilets in the cemeteries. A daytime trip during the summer months can be very romantic and take you back to the days of true love, duels, and the cancan.
I. Pere Lachaise
You could spend a year wandering about the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the northeastern part of the city and still only get through half of all there is to see. The graves of Delacroix, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Balzac, Bizet, and Moliere are here, just to name a few. There is something of a feel of power and prestige as you walk under the ancient-looking trees and climb the old and mildly crumbling steps of cobblestones. Even the parts of the cemetery that are eerie and full of mist and shadows soon give way to bright and open expanses of trees and wildflowers. Nature-lovers will find respite here from the mire and mildew of the metropolis.
If you see one thing and one thing only in the Pere Lachaise, make it the grave of Oscar Wilde. The massive sculpture of a flying, winged angel gave me the chills as I walked up to it from a distance, mostly because it was adorned with lipstick kisses and surrounded by a bevy of women. Notes of admiration cover the foot of the grave. You get a true sense of the importance of art in people’s lives and the love that good stories well-told can inspire.
II. Cimetiere du Montparnasse
Less than half the size of the Pere Lachaise, there is a charming cemetery in the southerly region of the city called Montparnasse. With the gravesites of more modern and contemporary literary figures, the feel of this garden of good and evil is rooted more in the artistic environments of the last century. The stone of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s joint burial plot is void of any religious monogram, in lieu of the couple’s existentialist views. Nor is the famous Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s grave adorned with a cross or symbol of faith. In a country where more than half of the population is nonbelievers, the cemetery of Montparnasse captures the more recent French interpretation of death and the afterlife that has shaped the literature and the culture. In many ways this is the cemetery of the current Parisian zeitgeist.
III. The Pantheon Crypt
This cemetery is beneath the ground under one of the most famous landmarks in Paris, the Pantheon. The building used to be a church until the political leaders during the Enlightenment felt that it should be used not for the veneration of God but rather of the nation’s greatest thinkers. Laid to rest in exposed tombs in the damp and cave-like crypt of this old house of worship are Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo. The long tunnels with walls of stone, lit by dim yellow lamps, have the smell of dust and mist. The tombs are exquisitely carved from wood and limestone, and you can feel the imminent presence of the men deep inside. It is the ultimate capitulation of France’s deep admiration and respect for its writers and artists. In the French value system a great man can be judged not for his vast amount of money but for his vast amount of ideas. This way of thinking is made manifest in the cemeteries of the center of European thought, Paris. They are truly romantic.
Photo of Oscar Wilde’s grave, Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, by pugetive