Pére Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

The heart overwhelmed by grief knows no rest …”

Heloise – The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse

Pére Lachaise is a place that probably needs no introduction seeing as it achieved iconic status and I feel is synonymous with the city of Paris. The cemetery and ossuary are believed to hold the remains of between two and three million people, it is the largest cemetery in the city of Paris at 110 acres. The cemetery takes its name from Pere Francois de la Chaise who was the confessor to Louis XIV, his home stood within the grounds of what became Pére Lachaise. In 1804 Napoleon established the cemetery stating that, “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”. Within the first few years of the cemetery there were very little burials as most people considered it to be too far from the city. The transfer of the remains of Moliere and Jean de La Fontaine to Pére Lachaise raised the profile of the cemetery and it became more fashionable to be buried there. In 1817, in the show of great extravagance the remains of the tragic lovers Abélard and Héloïse were transferred to the cemetery.

The tragic love story and letters of Abélard and Héloïse was one of the defining reasons I wished to visit Pére Lachaise where in death they are allowed to rest together, a chance never given to them in this life. Abélard was a French philosopher in the 12th century and was considered one of the greatest teachers of his time. Abélard was hired to be a teacher to a rich young noble woman and philosopher named Héloïse. Abélard and Héloïse fell deeply in love and began an affair that led to an ‘illegitimate child’ and a secret marriage. Héloïse‘s Uncle heard about the affair and immediately placed Heloise in a nunnery, Abelard was castrated. For the rest of their lives Héloïse and Abelard wrote beautiful letters to each other, explaining their feelings on love, passion and virtue. Héloïse became known as one of the most radical feminists of the medieval period. Their remains were re-interred in Pére Lachaise in 1817, a tradition exists where modern lovers leave letters at their tomb.

The list of internees at Pére Lachaise is staggering and close to a million people have been buried at the site. Some of the most notable tombs, apart from the aforementioned Abélard and Héloïse, are Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Eugene Delacroix and Jim Morrison to name but a few. Behind the ‘Aux Morts’ monument, meaning ‘to the dead’, lies an ossuary of the bones of Parisians from cemeteries all over the city in small modern-day catacombs. Another notable monument within the grounds of Pére Lachaise is ‘The Communards Wall’, this is where 147 Communards were shot on 28 may 1871. The murder of the Communards was one of the final blows in the ‘Bloody Week’ when the Paris Commune was crushed.

Its almost two years since I visited the cemetery and spent about five hours wandering around its various graves and monuments. I felt at the time that my photos really did not do the place justice (I was still using an old camera phone at the time and had issues with white balance). However looking back at these images I am reminded how powerful and captivating Pére Lachaise is. The sheer amount of Memento Mori,statues in mourning and statues of the deceased are poignant reminders of the sorrow of passing, and like I always feel when in cemetery, being surrounded by the dead can only propel us to live while alive and to leave echoes of beauty like the monuments at Pére Lachaise.

GPS: 48.86139, 2.39332

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