Wednesday, January 12, 2011


After death, most people's lives are shrouded in obscurity. Some individuals, however, are so exceptional they are remembered when most others are forgotten. In Paris, the tombs of many of these remarkable people can be found in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

A friend of mine, in town for a few days in December, went to Pere Lachaise to see and photograph the tomb of Frédéric Chopin. On her first two attempts, the cemetery was closed due to snow and icy walkways. Finally, on the last afternoon of her trip, Pere Lachaise reopened, but the day had already begun to wane by the time she began her search. All too soon, the first bells announcing the closing of the cemetery began to toll. She lingered - determined to achieve her goal - until well after the last bell. Then, the very real prospect of spending a long, cold night curled up at the foot of the famous composer's tomb sent her rushing for the exit. 

And that's what brought me to Pere Lachaise - a promise to take and send her the sought-after photo. 

The Cemetery of the East, as it is officially known, is the largest in Paris. It opened on May 21, 1804 and is located on a 108-acre tract of land. Known formerly as Mont-Louis, the land was purchased by the Jesuit order of Paris in 1626. In 1675, King Louis XIV financed the building of a chateau and gardens there for his confessor, Father François d'Aix de la Chaise (Pere Lachaise). 

According to the cemetery's registry, the first person buried in Pere Lachaise was a five-year-old girl, Adélaide Paillard de Villeneuve, whose tomb has long since disappeared. In the two hundred years since, more than one million people have been buried here. Unless you have a perpetual plot, however, your tomb at Pere Lachaise is not an eternal resting place. Remains from expired or abandoned plots are regularly removed to the cemetery's ossuary

For years after its founding, however, the cemetery was sparsely populated since the predominantly Catholic population of Paris was reluctant to be buried in the unconsecrated ground of the strictly secular cemetery. Then Nicolas Frochot, the Prefect of Paris, had two very clever marketing ideas.  The first was to offer  plots in perpetuity, and the second was to move the remains of the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloise and Abélard, the playwright and actor Molière, and the poet La Fontaine to Pere Lachaise. Shortly after, Pere Lachaise became the chic place of repose. 

When I arrived on a Saturday morning, camera in hand, the permanent residents were, of course, their usual discreet selves. The streets of Pere Lachaise, however, were bursting with life. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the cemetery each year and, even on this cold winter day, there were many people wandering the cemetery's 60 miles of cobbled lanes in search of the graves of the famous. Most of the visitors were consulting maps and looking very much, themselves, like lost souls in the realm of the dead.

I found Chopin on a small, hilly street, guarded by a sorrowful Eutrepe, the muse of music and in the company of other composers and musicians. Then I wandered a bit myself, taking in the beauty of the surroundings and the distant, hillside views of Paris. Pere Lachaise is, in fact,  a microcosm of Paris itself with its old winding byways and its more modern, open avenues. There are trees, gardens, beautiful sculpture, enormous monuments, squares and quiet corners. 

The list of notables is long and international in scope (click here) since you don't need to be French to be buried in Pere Lachaise. The only requirement for non-Parisians is that you die in Paris. Take your time, though. There's a long waiting list.

For more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Oh, sounds intriguing, Geraldine! I always find cemeteries fascinating. When I was in New Orleans, I purposefully went off in search of them there--because they are so under sea level, all the graves are above ground and interesting to see. I was nodding my head reading what you said about it being almost a microcosm of the city itself. Wonderful!

  2. I’ve never been to Pere Lachaise but this travelogue makes me want to go the next time I’m in Paris!

  3. Loved the last two blogs with, again, super photos.

  4. Your article is great! and thank you for the pictures of Chopin´s tomb! S.

  5. Nice post. Being able to vicariously travel to interesting places while being "stuck in Florida" is sort of a mini psychological vacation. Love the picture of the crow in the cemetery and the now and then comparison photo.


Thanks for your comments.