Cemeteries train the eye to glance downward. As if the thought of death weren’t somber enough, most are flat and grey. The only breath of life – the occasional wilting flowers that rest beside headstones. If you have the opportunity to visit the cemetery, Père Lachaise in Paris, you’ll find it challenging to look anywhere else, but up.
Paris has a way of making chipped paint look remarkably appealing. Even the forgotten tombs that are overrun with weeds and bear headstones with etchings that have long faded, still manage to draw attention. My inspiration for the visit was to see the final resting place for people I’ve admired through history. Maps are offered for a few euros that highlight the famous gravesites. You’ll want to allow time to meander. This cemetery boasts over 100 acres. Stone pathways snake through the grounds, along with gravel paths that sneak around tombs. You will also want to wear good walking shoes…I didn’t, which is why I ended up barefoot.
Père Lachaise combines art and nature, seamlessly. It feels like a serene park, with graves being the decorative accent pieces to the gently rolling landscape. Patches of greenery and the occasional stone bench allow you to sit and breathe in the stillness. If you like sculpture and architecture, your eyes will be rewarded. Countless grave sites are designed as tiny chapels; just big enough to allow one or two mourners to kneel inside. It isn’t rare to find beautiful stained glass windows adorning crumbling walls, and relics from centuries past inside these architectural gems. Some doors remain open, while countless others are bolted shut and overrun with decades worth of neglect that rears its face through thick masses of cobwebs.
After spending two hours within the stone walls of this Paris landmark, I had only made it to three out of ten historical figures I had intended to visit: Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, and Gertrude Stein. Victor Hugo, Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacques-Louis David , Jim Morrison, Balzac, and Oscar Wilde would have to wait for a future visit…or not.
Père Lachaise eloquently drapes death in serenity and beauty. After leaving, I felt more alive. My feet were bare, but my soul fulfilled.