We were asked by a client to photograph the tomb of a specific person -- a baron, no less -- at Père-Lachaise, Paris's cemetery to the east, the famous one. On a slightly grey day, we hopped on the 69 bus and headed out that way.
The cemetery was created in 1804 and was not popular until some famous people buried in other parts of Paris - Molière, Abélard and Héloise, Lafontaine - were dug up and moved there. This seems to have inspired people who thought they'd like to spend eternity next to those fine folks, and Père-Lachaise became hugely la mode for the dead. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be buried there. With the incredible crowding in of some million burials, of which there are 70,000 graves today, it does seem as if everyone who ever died in Paris is buried there.
The tourists go there to find the graves of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Seurat, Modigliani, Pissarro, Corot, Chopin, Wilde, Balzac, Hugo, Colette, politicians, war heroes, scientists, academics, and more. (The link above lists just about every celebrity.) The locals use the place as a park for the many trees make for cleaner air than in much of the rest of Paris. The genealogist goes there to try to tie up loose ends in family research. There is no denying that it is very beautiful and also very crowded*.
To find a grave at Père-Lachaise, one follows the same procedure as described in the post about the Montparnasse Cemetery: go during business hours on a weekday. Have with you the full name and date of burial or at least date of death of the person. Without that, no one will speak to you. We had our information, and even a copy of the death registration, when we went to the Bureau de Conservation. A charming lady looked at us suspiciously, as they had done at Montparnasse, wary that we would waste their time.
We presented our information on the grave we sought, but our heart sank when the name turned out to be not on the computer's database. The administrator asked us to wait while she would check the paper records, for the grave was from the early 19th century and the very early non-celebrity graves were not in the system. She was gone for quite a while, long enough for us to memorize the map of the cemetery, it seemed. The wait was worth it, for she returned with a copy of the map clearly marked.
"Go up the hill, turn left, turn right, count 11 graves down, then count 18 graves diagonally. It will be marked with this number." We thanked her profusely and left to climb the hill. (The cemetery is on a steep hill and the paving stones really are slippery so avoid going on a rainy day.) The directions seemed clear enough, we thought, as we followed the signs, until we came to where we had to count graves. One might as well try to count a path through a giant jar of jelly beans. There was no order and there was no space between the jumble of graves. It was very hard not to tread upon them. Dark trees heavily dripped and magpies swooped. Just as despair was growing stronger than determination, we came upon the grave we were hunting! It is madness, but the system works.
In principle, one can write to the cemetery administration for the location of any grave. However, be prepared to wait. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the reply. Here is the address:
Direction des Parcs et Jardins et Espaces Verts
Service des cimetières
70-71, rue des Rondeaux
Absolutely everyone advises against trying to get the information by phone, so we will not even give the number. There is another address, that of the bureau inside the cemetery, which will not respond to any postal queries. Use only the address above.
Père-Lachaise is located on blvd. de Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement.
Métro Père-Lachaise brings you to the side entry, closest to the bureau.
Métro Philippe Auguste brings you to the main entrance.
Métro Gambetta brings you to the entrance at the top of the hill so that you can do the tour downhill all the way.
* To be fair, crowding in cemeteries is an ever increasing problem around the world. See the recent article in the New York Times by Michael Schwirtz about Moscow's packed places of rest.
©2009 Anne Morddel
French GenealogyTechnorati Profile