The cemetery’s main entrance in 1817
I am in a celebratory mood. There are many significant City of Immortals benchmarks this month. First and foremost is the 215th anniversary of the founding of Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which occurred on May 21, 1804. It all began with the eighteenth-century Parisian engineers who had overlooked one major question in their urban design scheme—what to do with the ever-increasing population of the dead? In 1799 a competition was announced under direction from Napolèon to create new cemeteries on the outskirts of Paris.
The winner of the largest commission, the cimetière de l’Est (located at Mont-Louis in the east), was architect, urban planner, and landscape designer Alexandre-Thèodore Brongniart—the first architect ever to receive such an unprecedented project.
The Prefect of the Seine, Nicolas Frochot had a keen sense of how to appeal to the masses by creating something intriguing. He convinced Napolèon of a plan to win over all the critics as well as the hesitant clientele by naming the cemetery after Père Lachaise, for the popular Sun King’s confessor. He launched an inventive real estate promotion with the grand opening of Père-Lachaise Cemetery on May 21, 1804.
Frochot sought to further appeal to the elite of Paris by purchasing great sculptures to be placed throughout the area, as well as bartering for noble bones to lead the way in being entombed there. In 1817, he acquired the ashes of Molière and Jean de La Fontaine, and successfully negotiated for he remains of the famed and ill-fated twelfth-century lovers, Héloïse and Abélard, whose effigies soon lay atop a granite chapel bier not far from the entrance to the cemetery. The high-end cachet of the place was established, and by 1830 thirty thousand burial sites had been purchased.
Soon, grand mausoleums for the wealthy—designed by leading architects—sprang up amidst the knolls and gardens of Père-Lachaise. And so, as always at Père-Lachaise, we are confronted with the great paradox of this vast burial ground, which embraces serenity, horror, anguish, and acceptance—the grand sweep of the human experience. Day after day, year after year, the city of immortals awaits its next visitors.
If you are traveling to Paris, or have friends heading there, make sure these two items are packed in your bag, or enjoy them at home from the comfort of your armchair. City of Immortals is thrilled to bring Paris to you.