My first time in Paris was a whirlwind affair. I took a horribly early Ryanair flight and had barely 48 hours to see the major sites. Every waking moment was spent on my feet—and it was easily one of the most impressive travel experiences of my life. Yet such a breakneck tour naturally left me curious. What had I missed as I marched through the city? Thankfully, my second trip to Paris was far more leisurely.
In this post, I want to talk about a particular interest of mine: burial sites. For me, visiting cemeteries is oddly comforting. It is tragic, of course, that we all must die. But it does help to put things in perspective. Recalling that the greatest artists, scientists, and emperors have all succumbed to the same fate can ease our own existential anxiety. And being reminded of our universal destiny can also help us to savor the experiences that make life really worthwhile. This is how I feel, and this is why I went out to explore some of the most famous graves in Paris.
Père-Lachaise is located somewhat outside the city-center, and that is for a reason. As in many major cities in the 19th century, there was less and less room for more and more bodies. Overcrowding in municipal cemeteries was both unattractive and unhygienic. So in 1804, shortly after Napoleon’s ascent to the throne, several “garden cemeteries” were opened on the outskirts of the city. This same process played out in New York City, leading to the creation of beautiful cemeteries like Woodlawn or Green-Wood, among others. In Paris, the biggest cemetery established was Père-Lachaise—built on a hill outside the city, and named for a royal confessor who used to live on the site.
In appearance, Père-Lachaise is somewhere intermediate between the solid stone cemeteries of Spain and the park-like cemeteries of New York. Tree-shaded walkways lead past rows and rows of gravestones, most of them large and ornate. As soon as I walked inside I felt refreshed. After the bustle and noise of Paris, the dead make welcome company. And there are many of them to choose from. Over one million souls lie interred in Père-Lachaise—half the population of modern-day Paris. The cemetery is still active, though burial is expensive and the waiting-list is long. Because of overcrowding, the cemetery actually engages in space-saving measures, such as burying family members together or digging up bodies whose leases have expired. In Paris, even the departed get evicted.
Even though the cemetery is only two-hundred years old—quite young in a European context—it contains bodies that are far older. The most conspicuous example of this is the iconic couple: Abelard and Heloïse. Abelard was one of the finest intellectuals of the Middle Ages, whose philosophical contributions to theology are still fascinating. But among laypeople, he is most famous for his tumultuous love-affair with Hélöise, documented in a series of passionate letters that have become literary classics. Their bodies—supposed bodies, I should say—were moved to Père-Lachaise as part of a marketing ploy to boost the cemetery’s reputation, and now lay interred in an elaborate psuedo-gothic tomb, where the two lovers—whose religious vows made their love rather difficult—can now enjoy eternal rest together.
Two more celebrities were dug up and re-buried here as part of the same marketing push: the dramatist Molière and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in the 17th century. I was especially happy to find Molière, who is one of my favorite dramatists of any kind. His comedies are uniformly profound and delightful. The two iconic writers lie interred next to one another, in fairly simple stone sarcophagi raised above the ground. I am not sure about the ethics of relocating bodies for reasons of profit; but I was very glad to see Molière.
There are many other famous writers to be found, and not all of them French. Gertrude Stein—who wrote innovative, complex books—lies under a simple, traditional grave. The playwright Oscar Wilde’s tomb is significantly more elaborate. It is an enormous statue carved by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, featuring a kind of winged messenger. To my eyes, however, the sculpture appears a bit stiff and awkward, certainly not suggestive of flight. But it at least catches one’s attention. Somehow, the tradition of kissing the statue with bright red lipstick got underway. Nowadays there is a plexiglass barrier to prevent this. A writer I prefer to either Stein or Wilde has a less-visited tomb: Marcel Proust. After having slogged my way through all of his enormous novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was moved to see the great artist’s modest tombstone. For an artist so obsessed with remembrance, he has an inconspicuous grave.
Père-Lachaise also has its share of musicians. The body of Fréderic Chopin, the great piano composer, is close to the entrance. Further on, one comes across Edith Piaf, that star of French singers. It was impossible to look down on her grave without unconsciously hearing her distinctive voice. Yet the most famous musician buried in Père-Lachaise is not a European, but Jim Morrison, the American singer who died at age 27. His may be the most-visited grave in the entire cemetery. So many people visit and vandalize it, in fact, that the cemetery has taken to placing a barrier around the tombstone, so that nobody can get too close.
Apart from these personal monuments to the illustrious dead, there are several more general monuments in Père-Lachaise. The most general is the monuments aux morts, a sculptural complex unveiled in 1899 commemorating all of the dead in the cemetery (and presumably beyond). Père-Lachaise has more specific commemorations, too, such as the monument to the victims of the Mauthausen concentration camp. For me this is an extremely moving piece. It shows us a gaunt and haggard figure sprawled across impossibly steep steps. This is meant to evoke the “stairs of death,” 186 steps in which inmates were forced to carry granite up to the top of a quarry. Owing to my own background, I was also pleased to find a monument to the Spaniards who fought in World War II and the French who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Largo Caballero, one of the leaders of the Republic during this tragic time in Spanish history, is also interred nearby.
One could go on endlessly listing famous bodies in this cemetery. But since life is short, we must move on to the next one.
Montparnasse is situated in the south of the city. It was established around the same time as Père-Lachaise, and for the same reasons: overcrowding in municipal cemeteries. It is the second-largest cemetery in Paris, with 300,000 bodies. While not quite as beautiful as its more famous cousin, Montparnasse is home to almost as many icons.
Of special interest for me were the two most famous philosophers of 20th-century France: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir is usually remembered nowadays as a feminist, and her book The Second Sex is still widely read. She deserves to be remembered for far more, however, as she was an extremely versatile writer and thinker. During her lifetime she published important works of philosophy, best-selling novels, and many memoirs that have become classics. She spent most of her working life in an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the patron saint of existentialism. Sartre was just as versatile as de Beauvoir, writing plays, novels, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, and much else. Though controversial, Sartre was extremely popular during his lifetime, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. I can think of no writer alive today who could compare with this pair.
There are still more writers to be found. Charles Baudelaire—one of the most important French poets of the 19th century—lies peacefully under a modest tombstone, after having thrown the world of literature into disarray. And Emile Durkheim, who helped to found sociology as a discipline, lies similarly inconspicuous among the tombs. I was surprised to find Julio Cortázar, as well, who was regarded as one of the outstanding Latin American novelists of any time. Finding Susan Sontag, the influential American essayist, only added to my surprise. Finally I must mention Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer who was one of the pioneers of the absurd. I knew that Paris attracted writers, but I did not know its appeal was so everlasting.
You will recognize that Les Invalides looks an awful lot like “the invalids,” and that gives you a clue as to its history. Les Invalides originates as a huge hospital and home for military veterans who had been wounded in war, built under Louis XIV. It is a sprawling complex of long halls separated by ample courtyards, covering an enormous area in central Paris.
The majority of the complex is now given over to its use as a military museum. Thus, as you stroll through the seemingly endless halls, you see knights in armor, crossbows, muskets, cannons, machine guns, and tanks. Not being especially fond of military history, I made my way through this area rather quickly; but I am sure it would hold many delights for aficionados.
I was mainly there to see the tomb of one of the most important men in history: Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon the man was a paradox: power-hungry but idealistic, republical but imperial, egotistical but patriotic, heroic but despotic—the list goes on. This is why he is so fascinating. Indeed, I have heard that Napoleon is the subject of more books than any other historical figure apart from Jesus. It seems only fitting that his tomb be resplendent.
Napoleon lies interred under the central dome of Les Invalides, which originated as a royal chapel for Louis XIV. One wonders whether a church is the most appropriate place for the remains of the dictator—who was not, after all, especially religious—but at least the space is appriopriately grand. A painted dome ceiling hangs far above the space, which opens up to reveal the magnificent sarcophagus of the little emperor. Carved from red quartzite, the sarcophagus emerges from the floor, with its curved lid seeming to break upon the space like a wave. The sarcophagus is surrounded by statues and friezes depicting Napoleon’s glorious reign. Many of them depict the French emperor as the second coming of Alexander the Great—crowned in laurels, sitting as a god among men. It is a bit hard to stomach if you are not an admirer.
As you may know, Napoleon spent his final days on the tiny island of St. Helena, far away from France. It was only during the reign of Louis Philippe (who was trying to curry favor with Napoleon supporters) that the emperor’s bones were brought to France and interred in such grandiose style. As with all funerary displays, the pomp can seem rather empty. Napoleon died a defeated man, after all; and no matter how glorious he was, he is gone for good. But on the other hand, it is humbling to think that somebody born into ordinary circumstances could acquire such a hold over his adopted country (Napoleon was born in Corsica).
Well, the great Bonaparte is not the only one to be buried here. His son, Napoleon II, is also in attendance, though he died quite too young (21) to have anything but a minor role in French history. I was more interested in finding Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who held the title as the King of Spain for a few years before being forced to flee. After abdicating, Joseph spent much of his remaining life in the United States, living off the jewels he took from Spain. This is basically my plan, too.
The last time I visited Paris was in May of 2018—about a year before Notre-Dame burned. Nowadays, I suspect, it is impossible to look at the charred building without feeling a bit melancholy. Yet normally the area around Notre-Dame is one of the prettiest parts of Paris. The cathedral is situated on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine. Crossing the bridge southwards, you could see the cathedral’s monumental form standing above calm waters of the river, and marvel at the elaborate iron spire.
Just across the bridge you will come across Shakespeare and Company, the famous book store frequented by Anglophone expatriots like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. This is not the original location of the store, however; nor was it ever affiliated with the store’s original owner, Sylvia Beach. This store is more like an homage to Beach’s. Original or not, it has an excellent selection of English-language books, so I decided to walk inside. I emerged with a used copy of Giogio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a book that I had wanted to read for some time.
Moving further south, you come to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, another of Paris’s beautiful churches. Its façade is a rather strange and cluttered jumble of styles, which nevertheless manages to be quite charming. Unfortunately for me, both times I tried to visit, the church was closed; so I have not seen its interior. From what I have read, it is quite a lovely space.
But I was not there to see cathedrals, churches, or bookstores. I was there was the Panthéon, Paris’s great temple to its illustrious dead. It is an enormous neoclassical building, with a towering dome highly reminiscent of America’s Capitol Building (which is not surprising, since the Panthéon was a direct influence). Originally, however, this grandiose building was not built for France’s secular heros, but as a church to Saint Genevive, the patron saint of Paris. But during the atheistic years of the French Revolution, it was decided to deconsecrate the space and use it to honor heroes of the Enlightenment.
Every inch of the structure is richly decorated. The visitor walks under the peristyle, through the flowering Corinthian columns, and past elaborate friezes of religious scenes. The interior of the building is expansive and just as ornate. Any list of the sculptures and paintings would be tedious, but the interplay between Enlightenment and Church decorations is immediately noticeable. The great battle for Europe’s soul is played out on the walls.
Under the magnificently painted dome, which shows us the apotheosis of Saint Genevieve, there hangs a celebration of human science: Foucault’s pendulum. This is a simple device, consisting of a bob hanging down on a long wire. The back and forth motion of the pendulum undergoes a precession around a circle, directly illustrating earth’s motion. Behind this tribute to the human mind is a celebration of democracy: François-Léon Siccard’s sculptural portrayal of the National Convention. We see a martial female figure (liberty?) surrounded by politicians and soldiers, where underneath it states: “Vivre libre ou mourir” (Live free or die).
As interesting as is the temple itself, the crypt was why I was there. If you have any love for classic books, it is a holy place. After descending a small staircase, you suddenly find yourself standing between two of the most influential writers of any place and time: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was the first Enlightenment hero to be interred here. At first denied a Christian burial, his remains were first interred in secret in an Abbey in Champagne. But in 1791, during the heady days of the Revolution, it was decided that Voltaire deserved the secular equivalent to canonization, and his remains were moved here. The procession was enormous: reportedly a million people came out to celebrate the late hero, with music, ritual, and fanfare.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was moved here three years later, in 1794, after it was decided that he too was a hero of the Revolution. For my part, it is rather strange to find these two men sharing the same vault. They are opposed in both thought and temperament. Voltaire was an enemy of tyranny but he was no democrat; his writings stressed the importance of civilization and rationality. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a champion of the “general will” in politics; and he emphasized the importance of nature and feeling. The two writers sparred several times in life, each finding the other brilliant but repugnant. Somehow, the ideals of the Revolution were able to accomodate them both.
Voltaire’s tomb is the more impressive of the two, if only because of the wonderfully lifelike statue of the wry old philosopher standing before it. Rousseau’s coffin celebrates the man’s accomplishments in inscriptions on both sides, and on one end we see a hand reaching out, bearing a torch. I got goosebumps as I stood there.
Moving further into the crypt, one finds many little chambers branching off the central corridor. Many of these are filled with officers and generals, most of whom served under Napoleon. This had little interest for me. Instead, I made my way straight to the chamber containing the mortal remains of three giants of French literature: Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola.
Victor Hugo was the first to be buried here. Few writers have ever been so beloved by their country. His ceremony was even more elaborate than that for Voltaire, with over two million people in attendance. Emile Zola, another liberal writer, was next to enter the Parthéon, although the ceremony was disturbed by an assassination attempt on the life of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus was a Jewish officer falsely accused of a crime, whom Zola publicly defended. Proust writes much about the case in his enormous novel. Dreyfus is now buried in Montparnasse.) Finally, as recently as 2002, Alexander Dumas was relocated here, in recognition of his enormous popularity.
As usual with the tombs of icons, standing in their presence is both humbling yet exalting. But what I most like about such visits, perhaps, is that it helps to make a historical figure—a person who can seem impossibly distant—seem real and concrete. These people are no longer just names on a page, but just as real as I am.
So ended my visit to Paris’s tombs. If you can believe it, I managed to visit all of these illustrious graves in the span of a single day. It was a modern, secular pilgrimage.
Though I have never visited the catacombs myself, I feel that I cannot end this post without at least making mention of this popular spot. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, by the end of the 18th century Paris was having a problem with making room for its ever-multiplying dead. It is difficult for an American to quite realize the scope of this problem, since our country’s history is so comparatively shallow. Paris has been around a long time: inhabited since at least the Roman times, it has been a major settlement for over 1,000 years. In short, there are an awful lot of bones to bury, and the city’s space is limited.
By the late 1700s, the situation was getting serious. In the largest municipal cemetery, Saints-Innocents, so many people were buried on top of one another that the ground was piled up to six feet (or two meters) high. In some areas, this proved to be so heavy that it caused the ground to collapse. Also, as you can imagine, having such a huge pile of bodies is not good for the water supply, not to mention for the air quality. Luckily, however, a solution was at hand. Much of the ground in this area of the city—the Left Bank, close to Montparnasse—was riddled with tunnels and holes, widely used in previous years to mine limestone. Thus, beginning in the 1780s, wagons carried these ancient bones into their new resting-place, under the streets of Paris.
I admit that it does make me feel a bit ethically uneasy to imagine disturbing the eternal rest of so many citizens. Then again, I suppose many of the bones belonged to people who had lived centuries ago, and who were buried in mass graves anyway. Now these skulls and femurs compose one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The skeletal remains are arranged into patterns on the walls, creating a kind of grim aesthetic charm. I suppose I should visit; but the thought does make me slightly queasy.