A sunny spring afternoon seemed like the perfect time to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, in the 20th arondissement. We hadn't been there in more than a dozen years, so we bought a map at the gate and took a long stroll. The cemetery opened in 1804 and was a a little slow to become popular. After a few famous corpses were transferred here (la Fontaine, Molière, the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abelard), Père Lachaise became fashionable and has remained so, with more than a million burials (to make room, they sometimes reopen older graves to squeeze in a new coffin).
Plots come with a 30-year renewable lease. If no one renews yours, you're out. Your bones are moved to an ossuary to make room for someone else. So people are still buried here, although the atmosphere remains deeply rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that's why we like it. There are always plenty of visitors in this strange and beautiful place. Some are visiting the family tomb, and perhaps doing some housekeeping for it, while others make pilgrimages to the famous: many French statesmen, writers, composers, artists, and other notables. There are also some legends from other countries who managed to die in Paris and land in here: Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Jim Morrison are among the lucky ones (although they may not have seen it that way at the time).
The wide avenue just inside the gate.
I have been to Père Lachaise three or four times, every time I've always been asked at least once if I know where Jim Morrison's grave is. In my 20s and 30s, I always acted completely baffled, pretending I never heard of him. ("Don't you want to visit Frederic Chopin?") But I always surrendered and spread out the map. This time, I figured that no one would ask because so much time had gone by. Who is that into The Doors these days? But sure enough, two eager American kids came up to ask us.
The monuments vary from small markers to elaborate mausoleums. Some are kept bright and clean, while others are covered with lichens and moss.
Héloïse and Abelard lie under this Gothic Revival monument.
A prestigious family tomb. Money talks here, as it does everywhere.
A bronze relief on the door of a family tomb.
This is the tomb of a M. Lehman, but it would also suit the Seven Dwarves.
Old stone walls and flowering shrubs are among the beauties here.
However, one of the cemetery walls was used by a firing squad in 1871,
to shoot 147 holdouts from the Paris Commune who were camped here.
They were buried where they died, and a monument marks the spot.
Tomb sculptures often represent the grieving.
Many mausoleums are decaying. This one is missing its metal doors,
although its visitors still keep it neat and bring flowers.
This one's rusted art-nouveau doors seem permanently open.
Scores of cats live in Père Lachaise but we only saw one.
He seemed healthy and well-fed. People feed them, and they hunt, of course.
He was a friendly cat; I petted him. Most French cats have excellent manners, it seems.
The cats of Père Lachaise even have their own Facebook page.
The cat was next to Chopin's grave, which is always covered in flowers.
There are monuments for those who died in each of the Nazi concentration camps.
Some of these are extremely moving, eloquently symbolizing the horrors of those places.