Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 1800s

In the 1840s Père Lachaise Cemetery was considered 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 Bonaparte decided to give it when he created the cemetery. He commissioned architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart to design and layout the cemetery and also commissioned him to build a new stock exchange in Paris.

View of Paris from Père Lachaise Cemetery, Author's Collection

View of Paris from Père Lachaise Cemetery. Author’s collection.

It was tastefully laid out, planted with cypresses and willows, and consecrated in early 1804. The 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. The first person buried there was a common 5-year-old girl named Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a door bell-boy.  

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. However, that changed after the remains of the philosopher and theologian Peter Abélard and the French nun Héloïse d’Argenteuil, known for their love affair and correspondence, 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.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

The Crypt of Abelard and Héloïse at Père Lachaise. Public domain.

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.

An English visitor to Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1866 was a Mrs. Cora A. Lacroix, and she wrote a short article about what she saw:

“A cemetery could hardly be more appropriately named — a city of the dead — than that of Père Lachaise, at Paris. Its flowers, and shrubbery, and graveled walks remind one well of the public gardens prepared for the benefit of the rich and poor among the living who throng the streets to-day. It has it close-crowded quarter for the poor, where not only the abodes are pressed one against another, but where many families and parts of families are shut in by the same walls and covered by the same roof. … As for the poor, who are buried in ditches — fosses communes — forty or fifty in the same one, there is no assurance as to how long they may rest unmoved. Considering the demands, the cemetery is not large, and yet three or four hours are barely sufficient to pass through the principal streets, where almost every tomb, either by its beauty, peculiarities, name, or inscription, attracts a few moments of attention. …

To attempt to describe monuments would be idle among such quantities of tombs where all are, in some degree, remarkable. And often those of persons whose name and fame have spread the farthest and are known the best in other parts of the earth are more modest in pretensions than those of some who have been heroes for an hour only, or without other name than prince or other fame than fortunes. … It is not a little surprising to find that the tallest monument in Père Lachaise, standing on an elevation which overlooks Paris, was erected by a man to himself some time before his death. His main distinction was his having been minister or embassador to some foreign country. The monument is a clumsy cone, one hundred feet high, resembling much a huge sugar loaf, and cost one hundred thousand francs. … The most magnificent and perhaps, costliest monument of Père Lachaise is that of a princess, but one of no special renown. But the loftiest or most magnificent monument may not be the one attracting the greatest number of visitors or securing the most marks of remembrance and respect.”[1]

To honor the dead in the cemetery, many shops, such as marble shops, flower shops, wreath shops, and religious or biblical shops sprang up in the immediate area. Their merchandise was then purchased and used at the cemetery by those mourning the dead. It was noted that such shops were likely profitable because there seemed to be an “active demand” for such things at Père Lachaise.

Another mention of the Père Lachaise Cemetery, along with more information about types of burials performed there was provided in 1874:

Burials are of three kinds. The poor who are buried gratuitously, forming two-thirds of the community, are committed to the Fosses Communes, or large pits containing 40-50 coffins. Then there are the Fosses Temporaries and the Sépultures à Perpétuité. … Père Lachaise… [is] now available for burials of the last class only. The concession temporaire, or permission to preserve a grave undisturbed for 5 years only, must be purchased of the municipality for the sum of 50 fr. A concession à perétuité, or private burial place, may be secured for 500 fr., or half that sum for a child under 7 years of age. These spaces are very limited, being about 20 sq. ft. only. The charge for a larger space is augmented in an increasing ratio, the price of each square mètre (about 10 sq ft.) beyond six being 1000 fr. One fourth of the purchase money must be paid in advance, the remainder within ten years, and in default of payment before the expiry of that period, the municipality resumes possession of the burial-place.[2]

Among some of the more well-known people buried at the cemetery in the 1800s are the following (here are some others):

  • Jean-François Champollion who died on 4 March 1832 and was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily as the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs and a founding figure in the field of Egyptology. 
  • Frédéric Chopin who died in Paris on 17 October 1849, a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for solo piano. 
  • Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac who died on 9 May 1850 and was a French chemist and physicist known for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen and his work on alcohol-water mixtures that led to the degrees Gay-Lussac used to measure alcoholic beverages in many countries.
  • Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix who died on 13 August 1863 and was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school.
  • Georges Bizet who died on 3 June 1875 and was a French composer best known for his operas.

Frédéric Chopin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Also buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery is Adolphe Thiers, French president, statesman, and historian. This is ironic because he was responsible for directing “The Bloody Week” (La Semaine Sanglante) that occurred in May of 1871 and his grave site has been occasionally vandalized. It all began when the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government, of which Thiers was chief executive of at the time. They gained control of Paris after soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals on 18 March 1871 and they then ruled for a little over two months, until 28 May.

Adolphe Thiers. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

To regain control of Paris, Thiers directed what became known as “The Bloody Week” (La Semaine Sanglante). It lasted between 21 and 28 May and ended inside the Père Lachaise Cemetery at what is now known as “The Communards’ Wall” (Mur des Fédérés). This spot is where 147 Communards, the last defenders of the workers’ district of Belleville, were shot on 28 May. Of this action it was reported in 1874:

“On 20 May 1871 … several hundred of the Communist insurgents took up their position in the cemetery, and planted several cannon near the tomb of the Duc de Morny and the conspicuous Beajour monument … using the latter as their guard-house. A few days later the batteries of Montmarte opened their fire upon the cemetery, destroying seven of eight monuments, and injuring others. On the 17th the defenders of the cemetery, as well as those insurgents who on being drive back from the barricades of the Chateau d’Eau and the Place de la Bastille had sought refuge here, were compelled to abandon it, man, however, being captured and shot. Near the wall of Charonne, which bears numerous marks of bullets, 147 national guards, who had been taken prisoner as the barricades, were shot … These and numerous other victims of the last Revolution were buried here in May and June 1871.”[3]

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.

References:

  • [1] The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 26, 1866, p. 731-733.
  • [2] Paris and its Evirons, 1874, p. 154.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 155.

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