Monday, April 22, 2013

Speak of the Dead - The Fascinating and Historic Cemeteries of Paris

Cimetière de Montmartre
In cemeteries that house both rich and poor, famous and unknown, it is unusual to say, but there is really something for everyone in one of Paris' famous graveyards. This article will explore some of them.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise

In Paris’ most famous cemetery, exquisitely designed pathways and street names draw the visitor past thousands of graves. The stone that dresses many of the tombs is carved out in an imposing but luxurious way. This isn’t a great surprise, since the Père Lachaise cemetery contains generations of wealthy French citizens as well as well-known compatriots to European culture.

Among those buried include the English poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, lead singer of The Doors Jim Morrison, German artist Max Ernst, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and icon of French music hall Édith Piaf. Cemeteries aren’t usually regarded as places of great romance, but the Père Lachaise, ornately designed by Brongniart, is an attraction within it’s own right. It is as much a beautiful garden as it is an open-air museum that houses a city of the dead. Perfect for afternoon strolls, the Père Lachaise is one of the must-see attractions for any serious visitor of the capital.

Cimetière de Montmartre

The Montmartre cemetery, smaller in size, is a bit like the Père Lachaise’s little brother. Yet here, built in what used to be an old quarry, the main pull for visitors is less about the cemeteries design and ornate features, and more about the graves that compose it. Most notable graves include the writer Émile Zola, composer Offenbach and film maker François Truffaut. Even so, created in 1798, The Montmartre cemetery is still one of the most celebrated. Being less than two kilometres away, for those visitors staying at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome Hotel, it is possible to walk to the cimetière de Montmartre.

Cimetière du Montparnasse

Opened in 1824, the Montparnasse cemetery covers a largely flat 19 hectares and is the cities second largest open space. The Montparnasse cemetery is home to one of France’s most culturally significant couples with Jean-Paul-Sartre, the towering figure of the post-war existentialist movement, and Simone de Beauvoir, political activist, and author of the famous feminist text ‘The Second Sex.’ Following this theme, the cemetery is home to many of the France’s artisans and intellectuals. Other graves include poet Charles Baudelaire, philosopher Jean Baudrillard and composer Serge Gainsbourg. Though most notable for Irish visitors perhaps, is the grave of playwright Samuel Beckett, the hugely influential figure in literature and theatre.

The Catacombs

Last but not least, the Catacombs offer visitors a completely different experience. Gone are the ornate tombs and open spaces that lend certain romantic appeal. Instead, in your face are the stacked bones of approximately six million Parisians. At the end of the 18th century, as the mass graves and burials in the city became too overcrowded, it was decided Catacombs would be created in order to transfer all of the cities dead from the cemeteries above ground into old stone quarries beneath the city. Beginning in 1786, bones were exhumed and carried on horseback through abandoned tunnels that led into the stone quarries. This took organisers two years to complete resulting in a morbid yet cohesive whole, which showcases the millions of bones and skulls that played a part in Paris’ brutal and bloody past. Perhaps those that are easily scared will want to be left in their hotels in Paris, but the Catacombs offer a truly different experience in being with the dead.

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