Sunday, August 13, 2006

Pere Lachaise introduction

Hours. From 16 March to 5 November the cemetery is open Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm, 8:30am-6pm on Saturdays and 9am-6pm on Sundays; from 6 November to 15 March cemetery hours are Monday-Friday 8am-5:30pm, Saturday 8:30am-5:30pm and Sunday 9am-5:30pm. Free admission. (photo left: detail from the Gibout family gravesite in division 48.)

The Cemetery. Originally the site of a Jesuit hospice, the cemetery eventually passed into the hands of the government and under
Napoleon I was opened as the “Eastern Cemetery” (since it is located in the eastern part of the city) in 1804. It was named after Father (“Pere”) Lachaise, one of the more illustrious of the Jesuits who spent his last years where the chapel now stands and who had been Louis XIV’s confessor. It is sited on a hill overlooking Paris. Commanding some of the finest views of the city, it extends over more than 100 acres making it one of the largest cemeteries in the city. The cemetery is indeed as the Rough Guide notes, “a veritable ‘city of the dead’”, with its cast-iron signposts and cobbled streets. And although much of the northeastern third of the cemetery is laid out in grid pattern, the majority of the cemetery is a series of curving, weaving streets, which seem to go nowhere and yet everywhere.

Getting there. You could drive but then you’d be insane. By bus you can take the nos. 61, 69 or 96 bus By Metro you can take either the number 2 or number 3 lines. (photo left: Guillame Debufe in division 10.)

If you’re on the number 2 you can get off at either Pere Lachaise or Phillipe Auguste; while from the number 3 you can get off at either Pere Lachaise or Gambetta. The Pere Lachaise stop puts you at the northern corner of the cemetery and you can enter directly across from the metro exit – there is also a florist shop right next door selling maps to the cemetery (see below about the maps) and often a man right at the entrance hawking them as well. If you get off at the Phillipe Auguste stop you walk around the corner to your right as you exit the Metro onto Blvd Phillipe Auguste and the main entrance is a just a few meters on your right.

If you take the number 3 to Gambetta look for the Pere Lachaise exit from the underground, and upon surfacing there will be a large sign pointing you right to the cemetery entrance two short blocks away. There are several nice cafes along the way if you need coffee and croissant. I also like to enter from Gambetta since this puts you at the “top” of the cemetery and you can then wend you way down and exit on Blvd de Menilmontant.

There is also a fourth, and more remote entrance at Rue de la Reunion.

Getting around. Finding your way around the cemetery can prove a serious challenge. The cemetery is broken up into nearly 100 divisions, some very large others quite small, some in a neat grid pattern, others that twist and turn, curve and expand and contract on a whim. Although the streets and walkways are well signposted, be aware that there are absolutely no signs directing you to any of the graves so by all means pick up a good map. The cemetery does not provide maps at any of the entrance gates; you have to go to the “conservation” building near the main entrance on Blvd Menilmontant to pick up information and maps. However, the cemetery’s map lacks any real detail to help you wander around this enormous park. So stop at any of the florist shops at the Gambetta entrance or the one next to the small entrance across from the Pere Lachaise Metro stop (€2). As you exit the Pere Lachaise Metro there is a news kiosk that also sells maps (€2.50) (photo above: Croce-Spinelli and Sivel, two balloonists who perished by asphyxiation when the air grew too thin as they cruised over India, in division 71.)

To further complicate matters there are different two maps: the “Editions Vermet”, which is white with large glossy pictures on one side, and which sells for €2 and (€2.50 at the news kiosk); and the “Editions Metropolitain Paris” (€2 ) which I strongly recommend. Unlike the “Vermet” this one gives you a metro map, a brief history of the cemetery (in several languages including English), nice detail, is well laid out and produced and, the clincher, provides far larger number of burial sites. For example, this map actually gives you the niche numbers in the Columbarium whereas “Vermet” does not (with the exception of Maria Callas). Without that information you would spend the rest of your life looking for Richard Wright or Isadora Duncan.

In any case, I strongly urge you to pick up a map before entering the cemetery.

Finding graves in Pere Lachaise can be tricky and certainly a trying experience. If you are just a casual visitor looking for one or two or three graves then by all means rely on the map in your guidebook (assuming you have one of course). The Rough Guide to Paris has a pretty good little map – although even here there is some serious inaccuracies: Eugene Delacroix is listed in Div. 48 (he’s actually in 49), Honore Balzac is listed in 47 (he’s in 48) and Gerard de Nerval is noted in 49 (which is correct) but across from Balzac and not in the “other” division 49. (photo left: Gourlot in division 11; you can also see this stone in the Carnavalet museum as well.)

In all fairness to these small maps that particular part of the cemetery is trying at best. Beautiful to wander in mind you, but very confusing to find your way about if you’re looking for someone in particular (and most people are doing just that).

Online there are a couple of excellent resources: one is Wikipedia, which not only lists alphabetically the major figures buried there (by no means complete though) they also provides you with links to biographies of each person as well. Pretty cool.

There is another site which provides a cool interactive mape of the cemetery. It's extremely slick and very user friendly, allowing you to easily find any one of the gravesites listed on the site. Click here.

I had the good fortune to come into the possession of a wonderful little book Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris (1986), by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall. I first came across these authors when I used their book Permanent Italians. The idea is simple: discover the famous or interesting people buried in a place (such as Paris), locate their graves and write brief biographical sketches to go along with the guide. Maybe not terribly handy when it comes to Jim Morrison or the doors, but Culbertson and Randall also describe some of the more interesting characters (and their monuments) in detail which you would be hard to glean from any other source. The photographs were taken during the fall of the year it would seem, and while a few might be of some help in locating a grave there is really more focus on detail rather than environment. (photo: Pierre Gareau in division 10.)

Given the sheer size of the cemetery the authors suggest four separate tours for Pere Lachaise, and one of my objectives was to tackle them one at a time, but only using them as a sort of general guide to my wanderings. (I'll have more to say later about the details of the tours and be better placed to judge the accuracy of the book.)

Each “tour” presents the reader with a map on which are a series of letters, each letter corresponding to a name in the table using on the facing page, which lists the gravesites to be visited on that tour. This is followed by textual discussion of each gravesite on a division-by-division basis. Pretty straightforward I think. (Although the use of the letter “E” inside a circle threw me at first but I assume it must refer to the starting point for the tour.) One frustrating note though. They occasionally mention someone in their division-by-division discussion who is not listed on their “tour” map, thus requiring the visitor to use both the book and one of the cemetery maps.

In any case, the maps in the book are generally well done, using a series of arrows to direct you from one monument to the next, and with very few errors that I could find. (The most glaring examples are the repeated reference to Avenue St Morys as Avenue St. Marys, and in tour 3 the letter “I” is listed in division 66, although there is no letter “I” noted in the table for that tour nor is division 66 even discussed in the text.) Most importantly, the maps in Permanent Parisians list many of the street names, even some of the smaller “chemin” (path or walkway) names whereas the Editions Vermet does not; Editions Metropolitain also fails to lists names for many of the “chemin” in the area west of the “Grand Rond” and south of Avenue Saint Morys.(photo: no names on these two niches in the columbarium but the message is clear.)

Although printed in 1986 the book is still in print (2006). The book’s design is also handy: it is tall and narrow so it fits neatly into one’s back pocket. As a side note, the authors have also written similar guides to the cemeteries of Italy and London.

A note for serious photographers: because of the foliage and the huge number of tress (more than 6000 reportedly) the lighting in much of the cemetery can be difficult at best, particularly in the summer with many of the divisions being almost completely enclosed by canopy, so be prepared. And I was told by one of the entrance guards that the use of tripods is not permitted in the cemetery -- unless you go to the “conservation” building (the main offices) and register presumably as a professional photographer.

One last thing before you start. There are three WCs, or bathrooms to us Yanks: one as you come in from the Gambetta Metro stop. Make a right as soon you enter the gate and the WCs are about 100 meters on your right. Another WC, but quite rustic is located just to the left as you enter through the main entrance, around the corner and behind the guardhouse. And finally, if you come through the main entrance, walk to the first street on your right, go a short block and on your left you will see the large “Conservation” building (main offices) where you will find bathrooms located at one end of the building, directly across from the entrance to the old Jewish section of the cemetery. The WCs are well signposted. (photo: some things just don't last forever.)

For a large selection of my photos taken during August of 2006 click here.

Next, touring the cemetery.

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