Pere Lachaise Cemetery: Celebrated Parisian Cemetery, Where Millions Visit to Pay Homage
The French Military Leader and Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, was also a visionary and social reformer. By a decree: “every citizen has a right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, he overruled the law that forbade cemeteries in the town area. That made way for Pere Lachaise, the iconic burial ground in Paris. Though Napoleon himself was buried at a different place, this cemetery became a sought after site for the last-rites. Iconic personalities, including the noted writer Oscar Wilde, rest here in peace as people worldwide come here to pay their respect and revel in a memorable outing.
A tourist destination of world fame
The Pere Lachaise Cemetery is now a tourist destination of world fame. Its name is derived from the confessor of Louise XIV, a Jesuit priest, called le Pere La Chaise (full name Father François de La Chaise d’Aix). The priest was in possession of this land (called Mont-Louise) in the 17th century. The land was acquired by the city of Paris in 1804.
The cemetery clearly had an eventful past, beginning with King Louis XIV (beheaded in French revolution in 1793). The king had passed orders for all cemeteries in France to be shifted out of the city. His Highness felt that graveyard released foul smell and hence shouldn’t exist in open ground. Following his orders, 4183 graves were dug out amid chanting of prayers by the Catholic Priests and shifted to an underground cemetery (Catacomb). Over 6 million dead bodies were laid to rest in the new arrangement of the catacomb system. The metaphor of corpse turning in their graves, literally, saw the light of the day.
French Revolution (1789-99) did upset the catacomb project, but it was back on rails in the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. The first municipal cemetery of Paris, Pere Lachaise, opened to people of all faiths by a ruling of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. The ground is spread with greenery, with 4134 trees dotting the land. Wide-ranging Flora and fauna add to its natural beauty.
Shifting graves to a new location was a masterstroke
In the beginning, people were chary of using Pere Lachaise, accustomed as they were to the facility within the city. However, in a surprising state move, remains of the famous writer Jean de La Fontaine and the playwright Moliere were exhumed from catacomb and re-buried at Pere Lachaise. Along with them, the remains of the 12th-century lovers, Abelard and Heloise (Romeo and Juliet of France) were also re-interred. The strategy paid off. People not only flocked to visit the tombs of their idols but also bought plots there, for self and family.
Final repose for a million departed
Pere Lachaise is a 44-hectare cemetery where close to a million people rest-in-peace. The list includes the rich and the famous. The composer Chopin, the dancer Isadora Duncan, the painter Pissarro, the actor Simone Signoret, the writer Oscar Wild, the poet Apollinaire, the playwright Moliere and the list goes on and on. There is mass grave too, of insurgents done to death by the government forces, and buried en masse in May 1871.
Abuse of tombs by visitors at Pere Lachaise Cemetery
A visit to graves is not necessarily all solemn and serious affair. People get physical with it. Like a barrage of kisses leaving a lipstick mark on the grave of Oscar Wild. Graffiti is also made by the fans and admirers of the late prodigies. The grave of rock singer Jim Morrison (1943-71) became a spot for drug and sex revelry by the singer’s fans. Cemetery’s conservation office was forced to move in for damage control and issue warnings. Another case of besmirching involved tomb of a young journalist, Victor Noir (1848-70), shot dead by Pierre Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Legend has it that scratching the groin of Noir’s bronze statue ensured fulfilling sex and pregnancy. The idea took off to a level that threatened the shape and substance of the statue.
A place for mortal remains and urn ashes comes at a price
Famed world over as a privileged place for the last rites, acquiring a plot for burial in Pere Lachaise isn’t easy. You must be a domicile of Paris or own a plot there. Mortal remains can be dug up and moved to in-house godown (ossuary) if the lease time of the plot expires, or the plot gets decrepit. To obviate such a possibility, ‘perpetuity’ is the preferred option. Other options are for 10, 30 and 50-year lease. The prize of the plot depends on its size and the duration of the lease. A 2 square meters plot for perpetuity (eternity) costs a princely 16,000 Euros which is roughly 12.5 lakhs in Indian Rupees. The ashes of the diseased (funeral urns) are stored in the underground as well as overground ash-condo (Columbarium). This facility too comes at a price. Urns can be stored in a niche (vault in Columbarium) for 50 years at a price of 2,466 Euros, plus the taxes and administrative fees. A simpler arrangement of last rites is Memory Garden (Jardine de Souvenir), in the east of the cemetery. Here the cremated remains are ceremoniously scattered; eternal rest at low cost.
Outing mandates respect for the dead
The Pere Lachaise Cemetery is open to visitors all 365 days a year. Carrying of the pets and edibles are not permitted. As funerals are a daily routine, visitors are advised to show respect to the dead and empathise with their grieving relatives.
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