In Paris, walking in the paths of the dead isn’t the morbid pursuit it might be considered back home in the U.S. After all, American cemeteries tend to be row after row of simple headstones, often surrounding rather basic marble mausoleums. There is nothing to marvel at in these places.
Paris cemeteries, on the other hand, welcome the living, perhaps even more so than their deceased counterparts. From the hillside of Montmartre to the bustle of Montparnasse and the sprawling tranquility of Père Lachaise, the final resting places of those both famous and ordinary are at once outdoor museum and serene parkland.
I am drawn to all of them, both as a photographer and an explorer. I have strolled through them, photographed them, taken lunch in them, and even slept above them. Those I’ve visited have their own ambiance and distinct personality.
Cimetière Montmartre, west of the Butte and near Place de Clichy, feels like a little village, something that isn’t quite unexpected given the general village-like atmosphere that reigns in Montmartre. Its gently sloping cobbled paths are lined by tombs and graves, all seemingly well-maintained by groundskeepers and family members who can often be seen pulling weeds and leaving behind fresh flowers. Here you’ll find the final resting places of artist Edgar Degas, modern filmmaker François Truffaut, dancer Nijinksy and writers Èmile Zola (whose ashes were actually moved to the Panthéon) and Alexandre Dumas (fils).
Cimetìere Montparnasse is nestled firmly in the 14th arrondissement, in the shadow of the monolithic Montmarnasse tower. It seems far more modern to me than Montmartre, with sleek marble sculptures and carved headstones inlaid with shiny metals. Perhaps that, and the more manicured grounds, are in homage to photographer Man Ray, playwright Samuel Beckett, actress Jean Seberg, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre or director/singer Serge Gainsbourg, all of whom make their final home here.
My favorite, unsurprisingly, is Père Lachaise, spread out over 110 acres on the north-eastern outskirts of the city. This is my Wonderland, and to be honest, I half expect to see the Mad Hatter having a tea party here one day. For celebrity seekers, there are plenty to be found here: Oscar Wilde, Colette, Honoré de Balzac, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet and Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Marceau, Delacroix and Modigliani, Gertrude Stein and her beloved Alice B. Toklas, and, perhaps the biggest draw, Jim Morrison.
But these famous folks are not the reason I love spending hours losing myself in the winding pathways that meander up and down the hillside. To me, Père Lachaise is a sculpture garden made up of more than 69,000 ornately adorned tombs, graves and mausoleums. There’s a sense of contentment here, and true tranquility, that lures and soothes the living. Benches invite visitors to sit, enjoy, rest, and perhaps contemplate.
No matter how many times I visit Père Lachaise, my camera lens always manages to capture something I’ve never seen before. Inevitably, I leave having realized something new about life, or about myself. And there’s nothing gloomy about that.