Pére Lachaise Cemetery Project: 1989-2000

Père Lachaise Cemetery is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV’s confessor, who led the reconstruction of the Jesuit Rest House completed there in 1682. The land  was acquired by the city of Paris in 1804 for use as a cemetery. The rising ground, cobbled avenues and rows of trees give it a romantic atmosphere with more than 70,000 funeral monuments occupying 118 acres on the East side of Paris. Some tombs are ostentatious, some are unsightly and dilapidated, many are lovely. Stray cats roam among the monuments.

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Pére Lachaise Cemetery Entrance

More than 30,000 people are buried at “the grandest address in Paris,” including many famous artists and writers:

  • Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) – French novelist and playwright
  • Frederic Chopin (1810-49) – Polish Romantic composer
  • Colette (1873-1954) – French novelist and provacateur (legend has it that cats replenish the roses on her grave)
  • Delacroix (1798-1863) – French Romantic artist
  • Molière (1622-73) – French playwright (remains transferred in 1817)
  • Jim Morrison (1943-71) – American musician and poet (one of the most popular graves in Pere Lachaise)
  • Alfred de Musset (1810-57) – French poet, novelist, dramatist
  • Victor Noir (1848-1870) His tomb is a fertility symbol.  Must go see to know why.
  • Edith Piaf (1915-63) – French singer
  • Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) – Irish playwright and writer (remains transferred in 1909) It is traditional to kiss his tomb wearing heavy (usually red) lipstick.

Monuments also honor Frenchmen who died in the Resistance or in Nazi concentration camps. In the southeast corner stands the Mur des Fédérés where the last communards were shot in 1871.  Pére Lachaise is also the resting place of many of Napoleon’s generals.

The most famous religious figures buried in Père Lachaise are the unlucky lovers Héloïse and Abélard. Peter Abélard (1079-1142) was a brilliant and controversial philosopher and theologian who, at the age of 39, was hired as a private tutor to Héloïse, niece of Canon Fulbert of Paris. The two fell in love, secretly had a son, and married. When Héloïse’s uncle discovered this, he had the unfortunate Abélard castrated and sent Héloïse to a convent. The two rarely saw one another for the remainder of their lives, but exchanged soulful love letters that have become famous. Héloïse became an abbess and Abelard continued to write and stir up theological controversy. Abelard spent the last two years of his life as a monk at the Abbey of Cluny. Upon his death in 1142, he was buried at Héloïse’s convent at her request, and she was buried next to him upon her death two years later. The two were later moved to Père Lachaise, where they lie next to each other in elaborate tombs.

It was June 1989 when I first visited Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.  I was immediately overcome by its serenity and  sensuous, park-like solitude. I felt connected to this sacred place and knew that I had to somehow visually capture my feelings. I returned as often as I could for more than ten years.

Pére Lachaise Gallery