Cultural Tourism Lives in Paris Burial Grounds

Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker living in Paris, leads private insider tours showing visitors the Paris most of them never see on their own (, and also writes a popular insider's blog

Believe it or not one of the biggest Paris tourist attractions is a cemetery. Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to Pere Lachaise cemetery, the largest in Paris. The single most popular reason is to visit the grave of Jim Morrison (of The Doors rock group). In fact, it has become such a tourist magnet, that there are two full-time security guards to protect and stop vandals from defacing the infamous singer’s memory. The most visited cemetery in the world, it sprawls over 118 acres in the 20th arrondissement and it is easy to get lost for hours and stumble upon interesting, sometimes even quirky, graves of the famous and obscure.


The St. Genevieve de Bois near Paris

Buried in Pere Lachaise is a veritable who’s who of the Parisian rich and famous including Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Jane Avril (Can –Can dancer made famous by Tolouse Lautrec in his paintings), Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Rene Lalique (Lalique glass), Yves Montand and Simone Signoret (married to each other), Marcel Proust, Marcel Marceau, Colette, Maris Callas, and Camille Pissaro. Two of the most famous American ex-pats, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein are also buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery was originally established by Napoleon I and named after Pere Francois de la Chaise (1624-1709), confessor to King Louis XIV. When it opened in 1804, it was considered too far from the city center and proved not to be very popular. The administration decided to do some extensive marketing to try and fill the cemetery and pulled a very successful but controversial publicity stunt: they transferred the remains of two of their most beloved citizens, Moliere, the playwright and La Fontaine, the poet, to the cemetery. Thirteen years later they pulled another coup and had the remains of Abelard and Heloise also transferred. The marketing plan proved to pay off and, consequently, people clamored to be buried amongst the famous. Today, there are over 300,000 people buried there. On n historical note, the cemetery is the site of the Communards Wall (Mur de Federes), which is where 147 soldiers of the Communard uprising were shot on May 28 1871.

One can languish through the cemetery and spend the day walking through the rolling hills, tree-lined rows of tombstones, and winding paths, taking in the peace and tranquility of this restful place.

If you like Pere Lachaise and get hooked on seeing great cemeteries, also visit the Monmartre, Montparnasse, and Passy cemeteries located in central Paris. If you are really game, visit the Russian Orthodox cemetery in St. Genevieve de Bois, about 35 minutes outside of Paris. The reason to go: to see the extravagant and rich mosaic tombstone of dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Pere Lachaise
Principal entry: rue de Repos, 20th arr.
Metro: Philippe August
For info about opening times, tours etc. click here.

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