A thin layer of clouds blanketed the blue sky. A bite of mid-winter chill clung to the air, but sleet and rain stayed at bay. We walked beside the high stone wall, moss crawling up the sides and along the top.
We hadn’t even crossed the threshold into Père Lachaise Cemetery yet, but its size was apparent from the length of the wall. I bounced along on my toes, eager to step inside and spend a few hours lost among the gravestones.
Before arriving in Paris, a friend told me to say hi to Jim Morrison for her. Of course, I promised, while silently wondering what the heck she even meant.
We did so little research before arriving in France’s most famous city. We didn’t crack open a book or scroll through the endless lists of things to see or do. I knew I wanted to see the Moulin Rouge in person (though I heard the actual Moulin Rouge experience is a money suck), and I was on the hunt for invaders.
Other than that, our plan was to wander and explore, slowing and stopping whenever the urge hit.
Little did I realize when I promised a hearty hello to the deceased American musician that I was actually committing myself to something I so obviously love: a trip to a cemetery. Well, I couldn’t let down a friend, could I?
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris’ largest cemetery, is 110 acres and the most visited necropolis in the world. Walking through the heavy iron front gate, I surveyed the scene. The cemetery’s sidewalks and roads spread out like tangled strands of hair. A quick glance at the map confirmed what Rick Steves’ audio tour of the cemetery had warned: Père Lachaise Cemetery’s winding lanes are confusing. Getting lost is a real possibility.
Well, sign me up.
We began our journey at the crematorium and columbarium. The buildings hold thousands of cubicles, names etched on the fronts and silken flowers faded by weather. On the hunt for one in particular, I climbed a set of stairs and found where modern dancer Isadora Duncan lay to rest.
When I visit a cemetery, one thing I’m always struck by is how similar every single person is. We may be underrated or famous, rich or poor, creative or mundane in life. Upon death, we may be encased in elaborate headstones or disintegrated into dust. But in death, we are equal. Just as everyone is allotted the same number of characters to convey our thoughts on Twitter, we all are silent beyond the grave. Separated by distance, time, and experience in life, cemeteries allow people to find a sense of equality across all those dimensions.
I knelt by Isadora Duncan’s cubicle and traced her name etched in the metal casing. I learned about her influence on modern dance in middle school and have been fascinated with her ever since. And here she was — dust to dust, ashes to ashes — inches from my fingertips.
Dozens of famous people are buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Truthfully, I don’t recognize most of their names. But here’s a quick sampling just to give a taste of the more famous of the faithfully departed:
- Singers Maria Callas and Édith Piaf
- Composers and musicians Georges Bizet and Luigi Cherubini
- Scientists Samuel Hahnemann and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac
- Playwrights and artists Honoré de Balzac, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Molière
- Scholars and philosophers Jean-François Champollion and Pierre Bourdieu
And who did I recognize?
Novelist Oscar Wilde’s tomb hides behind a piece of plexiglass. Pebbles cover American writer Gertrude Stein’s gravestone. Colette’s gravestone was simple but lovely.
Frédéric Chopin’s grave was more elaborately laid with flowers than Marcel Proust’s. And, yes, we stopped by to say hello to Jim Morrison as well, though his headstone is roped off and was by far the most crowded one we encountered.
One of the things I found most interesting about the cemetery is that it’s not just the final resting place from the days of yore. People are still buried here. And, according to Père Lachaise Cemetery’s website, more than one million people have been buried on the grounds to date. A recent addition is Bernard Verlhac, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo killed in January 2015 when a gunman attacked the magazine’s office.
Even if I’d walked through Père Lachaise Cemetery without knowing any names, it still would have been a beautiful visit.
Overgrown, lush greenery covers the grounds, making it feel both a bit spooky and welcoming. A thick layer of moss made the pathways slick and added an iridescent sheen to the setting.The winding pathways create a story through time and place, introducing characters and hiding others in the background.
Clouds hung low in the sky. A mid-winter chill still hung in the air, the breeze biting our cheeks. With a final glance around Paris’ most famous cemetery, we left the ghosts behind and headed back into the land of the living.