In the 1840s Père Lachaise Cemetery was considered to be one of the most celebrated cemeteries in the world. It received its name from Louis XIV’s confessor, a French Jesuit priest named Père François de la Chaise, and because the land was attached to his name, that was the name Napoleon decided to give it when he created the cemetery. It was tastefully laid out, planted with cypresses and willows, and consecrated in early 1804. The first person buried there was a common 5-year-old girl named Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve. She was the daughter of a door bell-boy.
The Père Lachaise Cemetery was laid out in little streets and situated on a sloping hill northeast of Paris. It also had a commanding and picturesque view of the city. The cemetery encompassed about 100 acres and was surrounded by a high wall and many odoriferous shrubs filled the air with their delightful perfumes. Critics initially complained the cemetery was located too far away, and Catholics refused to be buried in a place that was not blessed by the church. This resulted in few burials in its early years.
In 1817 that changed after the remains of the philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and the French nun Héloïse d’Argenteuil (best known for her love affair and correspondence with Peter Abélard) were transferred to the cemetery. As they were well-known, people began clamoring to be buried there. Thus, within a few years, Père Lachaise went from containing a few dozen bodies to holding more than 33,000 by 1830.
By 1840, the cemetery was a favorite resort of the living and a popular place to bury their dead. (Père Lachaise was also expanded five times: 1824, 1829, 1832, 1842 and 1850.) Many temples lined the streets, being interspersed among obelisks, pyramids, urns, small tombs, and great tombs. The temples also often covered family vaults and mourners came to visit regularly replacing faded garlands with fresh ones in remembrance of their loved ones.
Unfortunately, the lower portion of the Père Lachaise Cemetery was not so grand as it was reserved for the poor. Long ditches were dug, coffins were laid close to one another, and, according to one 1845 observer, the area in general was somewhat neglected being thick with shrubs and trees.
Today, Père Lachaise still functions as a cemetery. New burials are accepted, but rules are strict as to who can and cannot be buried there: People may be buried in the cemetery if they die in Paris or if they lived in Paris. Moreover, there is a waiting list and few plots are available. Père Lachaise Cemetery has also adopted a 30-year lease on grave sites. This means that if the lease is not renewed, a person’s remains are removed and space is made for someone else. According to the official website of the city of Paris, one million people are currently buried there.
- Cutler, Theo. Ledyard, “The Cemeteries of Paris and London, Lady’s Godey’s Magazine, January 1845.