Ah, Paris. City of light. City of magic. City of art. City of admission fees to view art.
Stepping inside the Louvre will cost you $14.00. Want the audio guide? Another 8 bucks. How about seeing one of the temporary exhibitions? That’ll set you back another $16.00. How about an espresso to caffeinate the experience? Plunk down $5.00, please. While no trip to Paris is complete without a foray to the Louve, spending that much money every day is going to result in a quick evaporation of your resources. You came to Paris to see fabulous art, but dang some days you get overwhelmed with the prices and the crowds. What to do? How about seeing world-class sculpture by some of the same artists whose works are exhibited in Paris’ pricy museums and galleries for free? Get thee to a cemetery. First up is Père Lachaise Cemetery, the world’s first “garden cemetery,” established in 1804.
48 51’35.95″N 2 23’20.51″E (Main Entrance)
A dozen years ago about the only ambulatory people in this magnificent cemetery were black-shrouded Goths who were on a pilgrimage to see the grave of their fallen high priest, Jim Morrison, or local Parisians who were out for a quiet stroll. That has all changed. Père Lachaise has been discovered. Not to worry, you’ll still be quite alone, at least by big city standards. You may have company around the permanent homes of some of the major celebrities, but wander off the main paths and you’ll get the serenity you want and at all times you’ll be surrounded by the magnificent sculpture you came to Paris to see. Better yet, it’s all FREE … but first things first.
(Père Lachaise)Before embarking on your eternal excursion, download a map and chart your path. (Vendors around the perimeter of the cemetery also sell reasonably-priced detailed maps). Then hop on the Metro and get off at (where else?) the Père Lachaise station. You probably won’t be able to resist making a beeline for JIM so do that if you must, then plan your path from there. Alas, Morrison’s grave is a pretty pedestrian affair, but, well, it is Jim.
(The grave of Jim Morrison.)
Other must-sees are the lipstick-kisses-covered-genitalia-abbreviated tomb of Oscar Wilde, the statue of journalist turned fertility god Victor Noir, dancer Isadora Duncan, writer Gertrude Stein, singer Edith Piaf, composer Chopin, glass artist Renè Jules Lalique and star-crossed lovers Heloise and Abelard. You can easily spend a day at Père Lachaise, but you can always come back and many people do, over and over again. Best haste; there are other boneyard bonanzas awaiting.
(Oscar Wilde’s tomb.)
48 50’10.13″N 219’39.04″E
Montparnasse Cemetery is home to Constantin Brancusi. A rendition of his sculpture, The Kiss, adorns his grave. Poet Charles Baudelaire has a suitably poetic tomb. And don’t miss the over-the-top tomb of Charles Pigeon, the inventor of non-explosive gas lamp. Pigeon’s tomb is a massive polished granite bed complete with a bronze sculpture of Pigeon and his wife. There are dozens of other sculptors, composers, actors, writers, singers and painters reposing at Montparnasse and you can easily spend hours tracking them down.
(Brancusi’s grave, topped with The Kiss.)
48 53′ 20.27″ N 02 20 21.20″ E
This postage-stamp-sized cemetery doesn’t have a lot of notable residents but its eclectic tombs and slanting hillside location make it a pleasant place for an unencumbered stroll.
48 53’7.15″N 2 19’51.75″E
If nothing else, Montemarte Cemetery is a study in urban intrusion. Urban cemeteries have long been victims of city swell. Often the residents of these cemeteries are exhumed and deposited elsewhere with little or no fanfare. However, at Montemarte road designers figured out a way to thread a motorway above and through the burial ground. Sitting at the bus stop surrounded by petite mausoleums presents a unique opportunity to contemplate one’s mortality.
48 50’1.99″N 2 19’56.06″E
Okay, this ones gonna cost you about 12 bucks, but for the truly macabre-motivated the Paris Catacombs are not to be missed. In the late 18th century, officials ordered the closure of various burial grounds in Paris and the transfer of the bones to abandoned underground quarries that at the time were just south of the city. In the next few decades the bones of approximately 6 million expired Parisians found their way to what became the Catacombs of Paris. The catacombs are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Bring a light jacket and sturdy shoes (130 steps down on a spiral staircase).
Douglas R. Keister is a graveyard guru, who Sunset magazine said “has done for cemetery exploration what Audubon did for birding.” His 39 books include four books on cemeteries such as Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Read his blog on Red Room.