I’ve been known to spend hours wandering through old, historic cemeteries. No matter where I travel, I find myself searching for the oldest, most decrepit stones. So, after reading a little bit about Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, France, it didn’t take much more than a nudge for this most visited attraction to land at the top of my ‘must do’ list, let me tell you.
Pere Lachaise is the largest cemetery in the city of Paris. It covers more than 110 acres and research tells me I’ll have over 70,000 weathered stones to marvel at. Today, there are over one million bodies buried here, with many more in the columbarium, which holds ashes of the cremated.
Though it’s hard to believe, I also learn that there are more cemeteries, even larger, in the suburbs of Paris. I resign myself to the fact that they’ll have to wait for another time, a different visit.
Besides my growing excitement about reading the worn writing and finding out some history behind the people buried here, there’s another reason I want to visit the cemetery.
Trying Like Heck to Find Jim Morrison’s Grave
My high school idol, Jim Morrison, was laid to rest somewhere on this hallowed ground after he passed away in 1971. I want to find his marker, say thank you for his music and lay a yellow rose of friendship on his headstone. Morrison’s poetic words and haunting music of The Doors, saw me through a lot of teenage angst. I feel the need to let him know that.
My girlfriend Lauren and I wander into the cemetery, first thing one morning.
The first thing we do is grab a map, trying to locate Jim Morrison’s grave. Looking back, I don’t believe we understood the magnitude and grandeur of what we were about to see.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery was opened in May of 1804. It’s hard to imagine now, how the hill presently covered with scarred tombstones and crowded family plots, began with the simple burial of one.
Her name was Adelaide Paillard de Villeneuve. She was the five year old daughter of a door bell-boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine. Her grave was only temporary, a concession allowed by Napoleon, who’d declared that ” Every citizen has the right to be buried, regardless of race or religion. ”
I stand quietly for a few minutes, wondering what it must have been like for this one little soul, buried alone beneath the trees here.
We walk side by side, down cobblestone pathways lined with moss-covered mausoleums and hundreds of stone and copper statues, sentries filled with grief over lost loved ones. Trees stand tall, gnarled branches stretching over tombstones, some beginning to blossom with healthy green leaves and springtime’s flowers.
We stand in front of authors, painters, composers, actors and poet’s graves. Each one seems to call out to us, ‘Stop! Don’t just walk by me!’ We take our time, wondering about their lives, loves, and deaths. Do they still have family here in Paris that visit? Or have they been forgotten?
I hate to say that there are famous people buried here, as if they might be more important than all of the others. But, truly, there are a lot of famous people buried here. We didn’t find many of them, but the map has them clearly marked.
The much loved Irish writer Oscar Wilde, mime Marcel Marceau, pianist Frederic Chopin, and song writer Jim Morrison are but a few, tucked in between others.
There were a few tour groups there that day, guided through the vast cemetery by a knowledgeable narrator. We listen when we can, but have a great time exploring the nooks and crannies on our own.
At one point, we’ve made it to the top of a large hill that overlooks everything. I mean everything. The line of graves seems never ending. We can see doors of ostentatious tombs standing ajar, offering a glimpse of stained glass windows just beyond. They capture sunlight and throw prisms of color back towards us, beckoning us to come closer.
A friend of mine said that he’d made arrangements to be locked in overnight at the cemetery. I’m not really sure how that came about, or if it was even legal, but he swears it was awesome. Even though I love cemeteries and Pere Lachaise is no exception, I don’t think I’d ever be up for an overnighter.
We never end up finding Jim Morrison’s grave. I’m not sure if we were supposed to. Perhaps he wanted us to honor everyone’s life and death that day in April, not just his.
I leave my yellow rose on another grave, wishing the dead a good day.
I can almost hear Jim’s words as we finally, reluctantly, walked away;
”When the music’s over, turn out the lights. Ya, turn out the lights.”
I blow him a kiss, pretty sure that he caught it.