While visits to iconic destinations such as Mont Saint-Michel, the Palace of Versailles, and the Eiffel Tower are extraordinary experiences in their own rights, some tourists crave to leave the guidebook behind and take in cultural sites off the beaten path. In the case of Père Lachaise, this road less travelled takes the shape of a cobblestone path through a history buff’s paradise.
Upon originally opening in 1804 as the East Cemetery of the 20th arrondissement, Père Lachaise contained a mere thirteen graves. Due in equal parts to its location and its lack of a blessing by the Roman Catholic Church, there was slow growth in the number of burials during its first few years. The first noteworthy tomb did not arise until 1814, with the re-burial of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, together in their lavish tomb.
The story of Abélard and d’Argenteuil is well-known in French culture: their forbidden love affair and the letters they wrote to each other for years after their separation. The legend goes that while the couple was forced to part ways during their time on Earth, they were buried in the same grave so that they could be together forever in the afterlife. To this day, the site remains popular, with many visitors leaving letters on the tomb in hopes of finding true love.
Some of Père Lachaise’s most visited graves include those of several historically significant Frenchmen, such as Jean de la Fontaine, Chopin, Georges Bizet, and Molière. In the past century, this list has grown to include iconic celebrities such as Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, and Édith Piaf. Each of these plots is crafted to be just as unique as the soul it immortalizes, creating an elegant combination of understated tombstones and lavish monuments. Pilgrimages are made year-round to visit the gorgeous gravesites of these cultural icons, placing Père Lachaise among the leading historical sites to visit in France.
Aside from famous individuals, Père Lachaise also honors victims of infamous tragedies. Over the years, several memorials have also been built, commemorating an array of misfortunes. Notably, nine statues have been erected in memory of the Holocaust’s concentration camps, with skeletal figures eternally testifying to the inhumanity inflicted upon their victims. Nearby, World War II monuments commemorate those who died in combat, having fought to free the innocent. In recent times, monuments have been erected in honor of smaller-scale tragedies, such as the three memorials honoring the victims of UTA flight 772, Flash Airlines Flight 604, and West Caribbean Airways Flight 708. These monuments, commemorating tragedies both large and small, allow visitors to relate to these events and understand their importance to French culture.
While Père Lachaise is a cemetery, it is not simply a place of mourning. It is regarded as such an important site to visit in France because of how intensely it connects tourists to the culture of the country. Elegant cobblestone paths take visitors back in time to France’s past, allowing them to feel both the sorrow and the respect that Frenchmen have for these people, and return them to the present with memories that will last for a lifetime.