Stories from a graveyard

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 04, 2015

And they rest in peace Père Lachaise serves as the permanent resting place for some of the world’s best known luminaries who have lived or died in Paris   -  Shutterstock

BLink_shelf.jpg   -  Shutterstock

Even with a million dead souls and few hundred cats residing within its walls, this ‘elite’ Parisian cemetery barely rouses feelings of fear or unease

It was a grey morning and a persistent rain was determined to ruin my day. But I was not going to let it. With an umbrella firmly in my grip and a pair of leaking moccasins, I set out on my hunt for the earthly remains of some of modern history’s icons at Paris’s centuries-old Père Lachaise Cemetery. The previous evening, while ambling about the city’s 14th arrondissement, I took a stroll through the peaceful Montparnasse Cemetery. And as serendipitous surprises would have their way, I found myself marvelling at the combined grave of French literary power couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. A short walk away lay Samuel Beckett. That was all it took for me to plunge into Paris’s cemetery scene and no mass of towering iron lattice (read Eiffel Tower) would make me do otherwise.

My earliest memories of graveyards go back to the time when, as a mortally-frightened teenager, I would quicken my pace the moment the decrepit walls of a local cemetery in Calcutta’s Tollygunge area hovered into sight. Haunted by years of neglect and overgrown weeds, it could induce only fear. Years later, while in college, the South Park Street Cemetery served as a refuge from countless yawn-inducing lectures on the history of English literature. There was no fear then. It was an ingenious and free substitute for lively chatter with friends when compared to being in the expensive coffee shops that had mushroomed around college.

And then again, years later, I was in Paris, yes, Paris, for a three-day tour and spent two of those in search of women and men, I’d only read, heard and been long inspired by, reduced to dust in their graves. Standing at the tall gates of Père Lachaise, an oasis of quiet with roughly 60 miles of neat cobblestoned- and tree-lined walkways, in the bobo (bourgeois bohemian) chic area of the Place Gambetta neighbourhood, I felt lost. And the map proved to be hard work after several false starts. There were a few arrows that were planted at mouths of lanes, supposedly to help visitors, but for someone as directionally challenged as me, it barely led anywhere. I decided chance was my only friend.

Founded in 1804, Père Lachaise was the answer to the painful lack of Parisian burial grounds. Nicolas Frochot, the first Prefect of the Seine départment, was asked by Napoleon to turn a plot of hilly land, originally occupied by Jesuit priests, into a graveyard. Located on the eastern fringe of the city, the cemetery saw some drab days when it first opened. In what would be called a clever marketing move today, Frochot arranged for the reburial of the revered 17th-century French playwright Molière and the equally famous Jean de La Fontaine, author of the French fables, within Père Lachaise’s walls. Soon, the rich and the famous and the little-known were queuing up at the cemetery’s doors to reserve a spot. Today, nearly a million people remain interred here and the waiting list runs long enough to make the folks at the Delhi Gymkhana look away in embarrassment.

Strangely, even with a million dead souls and few hundred cats residing within its walls, Père Lachaise barely roused feelings of fear or unease. To the contrary, it doubles as a beautiful park with shady trees and benches. On a bright day there are old men sitting on these benches and young mothers walking their babies in strollers. When I visited, it was silent except for the pitter-patter of rain and that occasional whisper from passing visitors. There were a few funerals in progress too. And it was when I came across the recently-dead and their grieving friends and relatives did guilt seize me. I hastened my walk and realised that there were more tourists than mourners around.

Soaked to the bone, I searched along rows of tombs for famous names, some of which carried Baroque embellishments and elaborate sculptures, some were designed as mini chapels, some were draped in touching epitaphs, while others were elegant mounds of marble — like Marcel Proust’s.

Of course, Père Lachaise is not your regular burial ground. Steeped in history, it guards a million stories. It serves as the permanent resting place for some of the world’s best known luminaries who have lived or died in Paris — including Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde and Frédéric Chopin. Born in France to a French mother, JRD Tata was interred here in 1993. The cemetery also houses the graves of French legends such as the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abélard, Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and the magical Edith Piaf. And, of course, Jim Morrison, whose grave has served as not just a shrine for his fans since 1971, but as a legit spot (as deemed by his drug-fuelled admirers) for indulging in orgies. It now stands barricaded after French authorities took offence at such radical display of devotion.

In 2011, the Paris authorities built a protective glass case around Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which was sculpted by Jacob Epstein in combined Egyptian and Art Deco style in 1912, after fans defaced it with lipstick kisses resulting in severe damage. “A kiss may ruin a human life,” Wilde had once written. It continues to batter him in death.

Travel log

Getting there

Major airlines operate flights to Paris every day. A metro ride from the city centre to Gambetta followed by a short walk takes you to Père Lachaise.


Look out for the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Federalists/Communards’ Wall) where, on May 28, 1871, 147 Communard insurgents fighting state oppression were gunned down and buried in a mass grave. There are also memorials built to honour those who died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.


Leave your heels at home as there’s a lot of walking to do.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Geneva

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Published on December 04, 2015
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