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The ghosts of Paris at Pere Lachaise

by Michael on June 4, 2012

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As the recent Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris depicted, the City of Lights has a long history of attracting fascinating characters. All those people eventually have to end up somewhere, often at Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse Cemetery. Paris has become one of the few cities where visiting the dead is a popular attraction.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Opened by Napoleon in 1804, the Pere Lachaise cemetery with its 300,000 graves is the largest in Paris. It’s a beautiful, even romantic, spot for a stroll. The visitor can get lost for hours among the serpentine tree-covered paths. While it’s the final resting place for many famous people, a quiet area can usually be found away from the celebrity crowd.

Pere Lachaise path

Go and explore on the miles of cobblestoned paths.

Pere Lachaise cemetery man reclining

We just love the look on this gentleman’s face, “Okay, I’m done. Can I just take a nap now?”

Pere Lachaise cemetery woman weeping on tomb

There are many graves with women weeping in agony but we didn’t see one of a man doing the same thing.

Pere Lachaise Rossini grave

The grave of Rossini, the Italian composer of the stirring William Tell overture, is typical of the style of the mid-19th century. These mini-mausoleums provide a private chapel inside to pray.

Pere Lachaise cemetery Jim Morrison grave crowd

Despite all the Napoleonic-era generals, famous composers and other luminaries, the most visited tomb at Pere Lachaise is still that of former Doors lead singer Jim Morrison. Forty-plus years after his death he’s still drawing standing-room-only crowds.

Pere Lachaise cemetery Jim Morrison tomb graffiti

You probably wouldn’t want to be buried next to the former rock star. The headstone next to him attracts quite a bit of graffiti, including the expression above. It’s now surrounded by a fence and a guard is on constant vigil.

Pere Lachaise Oscar Wilde grave

Much like the person, Oscar Wilde’s grave has had a long and sordid history. The lifelike genitalia on the angel were stolen while the slab itself attracted graffiti and lipstick kisses. The governments of France and Ireland recently restored the tomb and put up a glass barrier around it. Now those wishing to leave a kiss behind must plant one on the wall instead.

Pere Lachaise root pushing headstone

In a macabre tableau, some of the headstones are being toppled by tree roots which look eerily like skeletal arms pushing up from below.

If you visit, climb up the hill and walk around the older sections that are in a somewhat tumbledown condition. Some areas look they haven’t been touched in a century.

Pere lachaise Auschwitz memorial

There are about a dozen Holocaust memorials that are truly heart-wrenching.

Montparnasse Cemetery

After a black-and-white day at Pere Lachaise, we were in the mood for a bit of color at the Montparnasse Cemetery. It’s also more accessible than Pere Lachaise due its flat, compact size.

Montparnasse cemetery Pigeon grave bed

One of the more well-known graves is of Charles and Sophie Pigeon who are still in bed looking like they just happen to be discussing the day’s events. Monsieur Pigeon made his fortune by inventing the non-exploding Pigeon lamp, which sounds like it could be something totally different, that he exhibited at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

Montparnasse Cemetery Man Ray

Influential photographer and painter Man Ray was born in South Philly. His headstone on the left says “unconcerned but not indifferent” and is signed by wife Juliet. Hers says simply “Together Again.”

Montparnasse Cemetery Man peering behind ivy

This man peering out from behind the creeping ivy is trying his best not to be forgotten.

Montparnasse Cemetery Alexander Alekhine chess

Former world chess champion Alexandre Alekhine of Russia has a chess board imbedded in front of his tomb. I wonder if any of his fans ever play a match on it.

Montparnasse Cemetery Sartre Grave

There is a tradition of leaving Metro tickets on the grave of French philosophy couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Montparnasse Cemetery Sartre Simone de Beauvoir grave metro tickets

I can’t find out why that is. Does anyone know the answer?

Montparnasse cemetery cherubs with cross

Have you ever visited a cemetery on vacation?

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra June 4, 2012 at 7:35 am

Fun post! I love visiting cemeteries when I travel! My favorite has been the one in Buenos Aires were Eva Peron is buried!

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Michael June 4, 2012 at 9:54 am

Thanks for the tip. We’ll be sure to visit Eva in BA.

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Merryl June 4, 2012 at 8:28 am

Fascinating post, thanks for sharing!! I am totally enjoying traveling with you while sitting at my computer.

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Michael June 4, 2012 at 9:55 am

Thanks Merryl. That’s very encouraging.

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Richard Needham June 4, 2012 at 9:05 am

Very evocative photos and story. The most decorated grave in the Pantheon (messages on paper, coins, trinkets…) as I remember was of Marie Curie.

My favorite stateside gravesite is that of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, where every year on his birthday roses are left by a mysterious stranger.

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Michael June 4, 2012 at 9:56 am

Knowing Edgar Allan Poe maybe that’s him leaving the flowers.

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Rose June 4, 2012 at 9:19 am

I love your blog of your travels. One of my favorite things to do is to walk through cemeteries and to check out headstones. Headstones have interesting sayings and some have beautiful artwork.

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Michael June 4, 2012 at 9:57 am

You’re right Rose. The artwork in cemeteries is underappreciated.

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Mar June 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm

When I visited Switzerland, I would visit cemeteries. They were so beautifully landscaped with those giant swiss petunias, begonias, and impatience. The cemetery was especially poignant at Zermatt and Interlaken. These were the last places before climbing up the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monck, as well as the Matterhorn. So many of the epitaphs would state, he died doing what he lived best: mountain climbing. The ages were very young, but then not many older people are fit enough to climb an Alp.

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Michael June 10, 2012 at 3:41 am

Never heard this poignant story of the cemeteries at mountain climbing sites. Thanks for sharing.

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Scott June 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm

We went to St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans last year. Quite creepy especially with the mausoleums that are beginning to crumble.

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Larissa June 5, 2012 at 5:19 am

We never made it to any cemeteries in Nola. But I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to go to one of those funerals where the jazz musicians play music really slowly during the procession.

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Paula June 4, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I second the recommendation for Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires. Also highly worthwhile if and when you visit Croatia: Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb.

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Larissa June 5, 2012 at 5:15 am

Buenos Aires is on our list, so we’ll have to add Recoleta to the specific sights to see. Thanks Paula

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Barbara June 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

Bonjour Michael & Larissa,
Very beautiful photos!
It’s a great idea to take everyone on a short visit of these cemeteries; they are very much worth appreciating!
I went to Fort Rosecrans National cemetery in San Diego last November to honor my grandparents. I have also visited a cemetery outside Philly- Holy Sepulchre in Cheltenham (looking for the grave of one of my families in Philly). I have heard that Laurel Hill is worth visiting for the beautiful old fashioned gravestones.

Have a great day!
Barb

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Larissa June 5, 2012 at 5:13 am

Thanks Barb. (I took one of the photos, Michael took the rest–but I’m happy to take credit for all of them ;) )

Laurel Hill in Philadelphia is indeed supposed to be beautiful (and the site of Adrian’s grave in “Rocky Balboa”–aka Rocky 6). We’re embarrassed to admit that we’ve never been there. It makes a case for being a tourist in your own home town!

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Ele June 6, 2012 at 5:22 am

I have always wanted to see Per Lachaise because of the royal persons laid to rest there but I haven’t had my chance yet. I did see some Gothic like cemeteries in London, though. I include a link on my name for the post about it.

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Larissa June 6, 2012 at 5:43 am

We’re hoping to get to London sometime soon, so we’ll definitely look for some of those cemeteries. Thanks for the tip!

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jerry June 6, 2012 at 8:02 am

Not exactly a cemetery story but kind of related. On a recent trip to Leonardtown, MD, we visited the Veterans Memorial in the town square. The names of those who died in WW I were listed on the bronze plaque. What was shocking is that there were two lists-one for “White” and one for “Colored”. We were surprised that although the monument was erected in 1921, and it reflected the thinking of the time, that it hadn’t been changed since then.

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Michael June 10, 2012 at 3:42 am

Interesting. Maybe they keep it for historical reasons.

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E. Thai June 9, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Your second picture looks very much like the Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm

We’ll check it out the next time we’re in New Orleans. Thanks for the tip.

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Audrey | That Backpacker June 10, 2012 at 12:42 am

Very interesting post! I also like visiting cemeteries. Though I haven’t been to any in Paris, I can say that Recoleta in Buenos Aires is truly impressive. Some of the tombs have entire mausoleums built over them. You can definitely spot a few famous writers, artists, and politicians buried there.

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Michael June 10, 2012 at 3:50 am

That’s a few tips now for Recoleta. It’s definitely on our list. Thanks for checking in.

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Phebe June 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm

We often visit cemeteries – at Pere Lachaise, I remember the monuments to writer Colette, and artist Camille Pissarro. His parents are buried in our cemetery here in the US Virgin Islands.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Hi Phebe,

Interesting tip about the US Virgin Islands. Another reason to visit!

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Jennifer July 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Thanks for pointing me to this section of your blog, Andrea – I love the photos and the descriptions of the cemeteries. Beautiful and thoughtful.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Thanks for the kudos jennifer.

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Heather September 7, 2012 at 11:56 pm

I’m guess I’m not surprised there’s a glass wall around Oscar Wilde’s grave now…but I remember going in 2009 and being able to kiss it (sans lipstick). Cool experience.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Now the glass wall is covered with kisses.

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Autumn September 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm

I believe the metro tickets on the grave of Sartre & De Beavoir have to do with a protest from the 60s or 70s that Sartre supported. Metro tickets were stolen and given to the citizens to ride the train for free. Kind of like Robin Hood – stealing from the government and giving to the people. Not sure why the leave them on the grave though.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Check the comment below that might provide the answer.

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Lisa October 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm

We recently toured Pere La Chaise and were told by our guide that it is a sign of respect to leave a ticket saying I paid to travel here specifically to see you.

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Michael October 20, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Hi Lisa,

Now that you mention it that kind of makes sense. Thanks for sharing.

Michael

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rolo de la france January 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I was fotunate enough to visit Morrison at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I have to say that i was a bit surprised at the fact that his grave is so dirty and almost hidden behind another, taller than his, grave. We got a bit lost trying to find it but getting lost was great. This cemetery is amazing, you feel the history as you walk through there. Such a creepy and beautiful place.

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Michael January 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm

You’re so right. It’s kind of tawdry around the Morrison grave. The rest of the place is fascinating.

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wandering educators February 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Love this – especially how you chose to do most of the photos in B&W. powerful!

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Larissa February 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Thanks, sometimes less is more in photos :)

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D.J. - The World of Deej February 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I love old cemeteries and Pere Lachaise is one of my favorites…

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Larissa February 4, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Ours too, thanks for checking in DJ.

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Cat of Sunshine and Siestas February 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I have long been a fan of visiting cemeteries. My local cemetery in Seville is home to bullfighters and flamenco singers, but photography is strictly prohibited…I even had to wrestle a guard for my camera back!!

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Larissa February 4, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Ah, what a shame you can’t take photos! I guess I understand the respect for the dead, but something tells me those bullfighters and flamenco dancers wouldn’t mind the attention ;)

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Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com February 4, 2013 at 12:21 am

I also love visiting cemeteries when I can. However, this is the most interesting one. Even that memorial is so moving. I would also definitely leave my Metro tickets on Sartre’s grave, even though I don’t know what it means!

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Larissa February 4, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Yes, cemeteries are sort of history, park, peaceful oasis and slightly spooky spot all rolled into one. Perhaps Sartre would be happy with the “enigma” of the tickets. . .

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Penny Sadler February 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I love cemeteries and if there’s one worth visiting wherever I am, I do!

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Leeamm March 21, 2014 at 9:33 pm

During the turbulent 60s and 70s Sartre supported a number of Leftist movements including the French Maoists, which acted at times like Robinhood in that they stole from the rich (i.e. government) and distributed to the poor (i.e. workers). One of these acts was inspired by a price hike for the Paris metro. In response to this act, which directly impacted French workers, the group stole metro tickets and gave them away.

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Michael March 22, 2014 at 8:30 am

Hi Leeamm,

Thank you so much for explaining why people leave Paris Metro tickets on Sartre’s grave. I was confused by it.

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