A Brief History of the Founding of Père Lachaise Cemetery
What does Napoléon have to do with Père Lachaise?
In the years prior to Père Lachaise Cemetery’s founding in 1804, Paris had been rocked by terror and anarchy, the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the damage wrought by the Revolution. The people were anxious for peace. In 1799, their spirits were lifted by news of a dashing young general who was named the new First Consul, Napoléon Bonaparte.
After having been away for many years on military campaigns, Napoléon now grew concerned with the living conditions of his subjects. He helped institute the sewer system that carried fetid water away from the congested and fast-growing neighborhoods of Paris. He also focused on the creation of the lycées (state secondary schools); civic governance; political restructuring and urban planning; and most notably for culture, the creation of Europe’s largest art gallery, the Louvre, or Musée Napoléon.
He noted there was a looming health threat due to the mounting body count, which signaled a dire need for expanded burial grounds. Napoléon laid down the challenge to his city planners: solve the overcrowding. In 1799 a competition was announced to create new cemeteries on the outskirts of Paris.
A location was chosen in the far eastern section of the city: the former 17th-century country retreat of Father François d’Aix de la Chaise (Jesuit confessor to the Sun King, Louis XIV). The competition winner, architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, created a brilliant design for transforming this mountainous Elysium into a final resting place for Parisians. Yet it was a hard sell to the populace.
In stepped Nicolas Frochot, Prefect of the Seine, who convinced Napoléon of a plan to win over all the critics, as well as the hesitant clientele. Having named the cemetery “Père Lachaise,” after the popular Sun King’s confessor, he appealed to the elite of Paris by purchasing great sculptures to be placed throughout the landscape.
He further bartered for noble bones to lead the way by having them entombed there. He successfully negotiated for the remains of the famed and ill-fated 17th century lovers, Héloïse and Abélard, whose effigies soon lay atop a granite chapel bier not far from the entrance to the cemetery. He also acquired the ashes of Molière and La Fontaine. Thus the high-end cachet of the place was established.
Today, there are one million people buried in Père Lachaise, and it has become a resting place for all people in Paris, representing many economic strata, races, and religions.
If the idea of making Père Lachaise Cemetery your final resting place appeals to you, be aware: although there is a waiting list, one can still be buried in this elysian Ritz. Should you be so fortunate as to snag a spot here, your sentiments surely would echo those of fellow resident Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the foremost poets of the early 20th century. Etched on his tombstone at Père Lachase is this line from his poem “Les Collines” (“The Hills”):
Je peux mourir en souriant
(“I can die with a smile on my face”)