Wait! I know what you’re probably thinking. A cemetery? We’re taking a break from museums to talk about a cemetery? I admit it is a rather drastic change of course. But that is the joy of Paris. There is so much history in this city that even its cemeteries are famous sites. And the Père Lachaise Cemetery is the most famous cemetery in Paris. Arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. It is certainly the most visited, with over 3.5 million visitors every year. So why do people spend their precious time in Paris walking around a cemetery? The answer can be found in the many famous people who have been laid to rest in Père Lachaise over the centuries.
My personal favourite tomb to visit in Père Lachaise is that of Oscar Wilde. The legendary Irish writer found fame as a playwright in London, before being arrested and convicted for crimes of sodomy and gross indecency with other men. He was imprisoned for two years and sentenced to hard labour. He left England after he was released, and he died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46. Today, his grave is one of the most visited in Père Lachaise. It was a tradition for decades for people to kiss the stone of his tomb, leaving behind a bright lipstick mark in tribute. However, a glass barrier now protects the tomb, and visitors are encouraged to leave another form of tribute. Hopefully one a bit more sanitary.
Jim Morrison was the lead singer of the American rock band The Doors, one of the iconic counterculture rock bands of the 1960s. Sadly, Jim Morrison died in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27, but his legacy endures. Today, hundreds of people visit his grave in Père Lachaise every day to lay flowers, sing Doors songs, and inexplicably, leave chewing gum on a nearby tree. His grave is tucked behind another row of tombs, but if you follow the crowds, you will be sure to find it.
Heloise and Abelard
Heloise and Abelard have been called the original Romeo and Juliet, and their tragic story of doomed love has inspired people for almost a thousand years. Madly in love, Heloise and Abelard were forced apart by the conventions of their time. But centuries later, Empress Josephine was so taken by their story, she ordered the lovers to be moved to the Père Lachaise cemetery to be together for all eternity. Today, thousands of lovers, couples, and love seekers leave tributes at their tomb.
The Communards’ Wall
The Père Lachaise cemetery was the location of the Paris Commune’s last stand during the Bloody Week of May, 1871. On May 28th, 147 Communard soldiers were captured in the cemetery by the French Army, lined up against a wall, and executed by firing squad. They were later buried in a mass grave in Père Lachaise. Today, the Communards’ Wall bears a memorial to this act of violence that ended one of the bloodiest chapters in Paris’ history.
French singer Edith Piaf died in 1963 in the French Riviera. However, legend has it that her body was secretly driven to Paris so that her fans would think that she died in her beloved city. Piaf herself is equally beloved, as her grave is one of the most popular in Père Lachaise. You can’t miss it, as it is constantly covered in reams of flowers.
Bonus – Victor Noir
Victor Noir was a journalist who was shot dead by a cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte III. But it is not this rather unfortunate end that he is most well known for today. No, that honour goes to the statue on his grave. A statue that for reasons known only to the artist, sports a rather noticeable bulge in its pants. Today, urban legend has it that if a woman kisses the lips of the statue, drops a flower in the hat, and rubs the bulge, she will be blessed with fertility and a rewarding sex life. Where this urban legend came from is anyone’s guess. But the shine on the statue’s lips and bulge is proof that millions have taken it seriously.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.