The Pere Lachaise Cemetery can feel overwhelming, and we’re here to help!
I know I personally never really appreciated a good cemetery until I moved to Paris. Sure, I always felt like there was something peaceful about wandering through a graveyard, but I also felt like it could get a little, er…creepy.
That was until I discovered places in Paris like the Montmartre Cemetery, the Montparnasse cemetery and, of course, the infamous Pere Lachaise.
The Pere Lachaise is a massive cemetery on the east side of Paris. It’s in the 20th arrondissement, which is just a fancy French word for neighborhood. Paris is separated into 20 different arrondissements.
The Pere Lachaise is also Paris’ first municipal cemetery! It opened in 1804 and is named after the confessor for King Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise. When Napoleon acquired the land in the early 19th century, he also passed a law that stated that all French citizens had “the right to be buried regardless of race or religion.”
The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery was a massive graveyard where Parisians had been buried from the Middle Ages until it’s closure in 1780. Since then, smaller graveyards throughout the city became overcrowded. Napoleon ordered that 4 large cemeteries be opened in the city. Enter: Montparnasse Cemetery in the south, Montmartre Cemetery in the north, Passy Cemetery in the west, and Pere Lachaise in the east.
Pere Lachaise was initially met with criticism as many felt it was too far away from the center of Paris. Who would want to trek all the way up to the 20th arrondissement to go to a funeral? Roman Catholics also refused to bury their dead there until it was blessed by the Church. In 1804, there were only 13 graves.
So, the city decided to try something that would hopefully make the cemetery more “desirable” to Parisians. A desirable cemetery? I know. But, you have to be buried somewhere, right?! The city planned a major ceremony in which they transferred the remains of French authors Jean de la Fontaine and Molière to Pere Lachaise.
From then on, the cemetery began to fill steadily. In 1805, there were 44 graves, and by 1830 there were 33,000! Since it’s opening in 1804, the cemetery has since been expanded 5 times: in 1824, 1829, 1832, 1842 and 1850. Today, there are over 1 million people buried there.
And that concludes a little history lesson on the Pere Lachaise before I jump into the 8 impressive gravestones you can find there! Here we go…!
As a side note, I definitely recommend that you pick up a map of the cemetery, which you will find when you enter the cemetery. If you want a head start, click here to view a map online!
1. Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf was born in Belleville in 1915, and quickly became famous for her singing by the 1930s. You’ve probably (read: definitely) heard her smash hit, “La Vie en Rose” at some point in your life. Another one of her famous songs is called “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” which you’ve also probably (definitely) heard too.
Sadly, Piaf struggled with depression and addiction for most of her adult life, and she died at the young age of 47. Thousands of her friends and fans attended her funeral.
If you want to pay homage to Ms. Piaf, you’ll find her grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in division 97.
Molière was a French playwright and actor, and many believe that he was one of the greatest writers of French comedy of all time. He was born in Paris around 1622. I say “around,” because his birth was never recorded, but his baptism was. He lived in the French capital his entire life.
His works have been performed at the famous French theatre, the Comédie-Française more times than any other playwright to date!
You’ll also find Molière’s grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in division 25.
3. Jim Morrison
You may be scratching your heads and asking why Jim Morrison, an American rock star is buried in a Parisian cemetery? Well, technically anyone can be buried there, if they died in Paris. Which, Morrison sadly did at the age of 27. In case you’re wondering, he is a member of the macabre 27 club – artists, writers and singers that all tragically died at age 27.
My dad is a huge fan of Jim Morrison, so the first time I visited the Pere Lachaise, I headed straight for his tomb. Here, you’ll find dozens of trinkets and flowers that visitors have left to honor his life, and you’ll also notice that there are pieces of gum stuck all over the surrounding trees.
Why, you may be asking yourselves? Morrison was totally against rules and the establishment. Sticking your gum where it doesn’t belong is just something that Morrison would do! Although, personally, I don’t recommend it. Those poor trees!
Morrison’s grave is in division 6 in the Pere Lachaise.
4. Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde is one of my absolute favorite writers. I plowed through The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I’ve read almost all of his plays! Wilde, an Englishman, is another example of a famous foreigner who died in Paris and was then buried in the Pere Lachaise.
Wilde enjoyed much success in England in the late 19th century for his plays and novels. But, British society soon turned on him when he was caught up in a scandal in which he, a married man with children, was caught in a homosexual relationship. He was arrested and eventually exiled from England.
Wilde was ostrasized by his own country for being gay, and lived out the rest of his days in Paris in poverty. He died at the age of 46 of meningitis in 1900.
Wilde’s grave is covered in red lipstick kisses, so it’s pretty hard to miss! You’ll find it in division 89.
5. Abelard and Heloise
The story of Abelard and Heloise is a love story for the ages! One half of the couple, Abelard, was a famous French philosopher and theologian. Heloise was a nun and a scholar, and soon became one of Abelard’s students.
They began a super secret love affair, as this was all going down in the 12th century and they were both of course religious people. Heloise soon became pregnant (surprise!), and Abelard arranged for her to go and live with his sister in secret to have the baby.
To make a long story short (if you’re interested in hearing the entire saga, we wrote a blog about it!), Abelard and Heloise were separated, only being able to communicate through love letters. They were eventually reunited and were buried together, and now it is tradition for visitors to leave love letter on their graves!
To visit these lovers and leave a love note of your own, you can find them in division 7.
6. Honoré De Balzac
Honoré de Balzac is another famous French author who is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. He is most well known for his sequence of novels entitled La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy in English. It is generally considered as being an excellent representation of French life after Napoleon had come and gone.
He is also one of the founders of the literary movement, realism, in France. Paris was almost always the backdrop of his works.
You can visit Honoré de Balzac’s tomb in division 48!
7. Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan was an American and French dancer who was popular in the early 20th century. She created a really innovative way to dance, and was known for improvising on stage! Dance was truly an art form for Duncan, which is why she decided to stop going on tour, and teach her art to others.
Duncan enjoyed a life of teaching and dancing, when she tragically died at age 50. She was in a horrible car accident in which her long silk scarf got caught in the spokes of a tire, killing her. It’s so sad!
To visit Duncan’s grave in Pere Lachaise, head to division 87!
8. Jean de la Fontaine
Jean de la Fontaine is a French author who is most famous for his collection of fables, aptly named Fables. You’ve probably heard of some of them: The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Fox and the Crow, and The Tortoise and the Hare!
La Fontaine was born in 1621, and wrote for most of his adult life until his death at age 70. He is well loved across France, and his Fables are still taught to French school children today! I know I read quite a few of his stories as a child myself, so he is very well-known worldwide as well.
La Fontaine’s remains were some of the first to be moved to Pere Lachaise to make it a more desirable cemetery. To visit it, head to division 25.
I hope that I’ve helped to make Pere Lachaise more managable! It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, so I hope you’ll consider doing so when you’re in Paris 🙂
If you’d like to join one of our walking tours in Paris (and I sure hope you do!), visit our Tours page on our website to learn more. Until then…happy traveling!
Let me know in the comments below your favorite grave in Pere Lachaise! We love hearing from our readers 🙂