The city's oldest and largest cemetery, Le cimetière des Innocents, opened to the public in the 4th century and by the end of the 18th century reportedly contained the remains of more than 6 million Parisians. Although individual sepulchers were occasionally used, most were buried in large mass graves. (It is reported in a five-week period in 1498 some 50,000 Parisians perished from the plague and were interred in enormous mass graves in Les Innocents.)

Responding to growing concerns about the dangers presented by having the largest cemetery in the city right next door to the largest outdoor food and meat market, in 1786 the French government made the decision to ban any future burials within the center of the city. But they went further. They also decided to close all the existing cemeteries, most of which were connected with the city's churches, and remove all the remains away from the growing urban population.

The remains of more than 6 million Parisians were subsequently removed from the cemetery and along with those of nearly all of the church burial grounds, were removed to an enormous underground warren of tunnels in an old quarry south of the city, and thus were born the Paris catacombs.

As part of the plan to open new cemeteries outside the city proper, in 1804 the government opened Le cimetière d’Est, eventually called by it’s nickname Pere-Lachaise, probably the most famous of Parisian cemeteries. Located on the site of a former Jesuit retreat east of the city, Pere-Lachaise was soon followed by Montparnasse (on the site of a much smaller and older cemetery) in the south, Montmartre to the north and eventually Passy to the east, in the shadow of the Eiffel tower.

Only two outdoor church burying grounds remain today in the 20 arrondisements: Saint-Germain-de-Charonne (Charonne) near Pere-Lachaise and Le cimetière du Calvaire (Calvaire), near Sacre Coeur in Montmartre.

52 BC – Roman town located on the left bank called Lutetia

0-400 - Largest necropolis outside the city walls located roughly in the area bordered by Boulevard Saint-Michel, Avenue Denfert-Rochereau and the Rue Saint-Jacques

400-1780s – Burials take place under Christian auspices in churches and church graveyards

1100-1780s - Saint-Innocents is the main city burial ground (present-day Les Halles area near Saint-Eustache)

1785-1788 – Government begins closing all the church graveyards including Saint-Innocents and transfers the remains to the underground quarries beneath the Plain of Montrouge, south of Paris – creation of the Paris Catacombs

1790-1804 – Church burial grounds are closed and plans are drawn up to establish new cemeteries north, east, west and south of the city walls

1804 – Imperial decree prohibiting interment in churches or within the city proper; The Eastern Cemetery (Père-Lachaise) opens on 21 May

1810 - Jewish enclosure established in Père-Lachaise

1820 – Passy opens

1824 – The Southern Cemetery (Montparnasse) opens

1825 – The Northern Cemetery (Montmartre) opens

1856 - Mosque and Muslim burial enclosure created in Père-Lachaise (D85)

1860 – City of Paris annexes nearby villages and communities thus bringing all the present-day cemeteries within city boundaries and jurisdiction

1880s – Segregation within cemeteries by religion is prohibited. In Père-Lachaise the wall separating the Jewish section (D07) from the rest of the cemetery is removed and the mosque in D85 is torn down

1953 - Père-Lachaise becomes the city ossuary – remains from all the city’s abandoned and ruined graves transferred to the subterranean repository beneath the chapel and behind the Monument aux morts in D04

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