Paris six feet under

The majority of people who look at my pictures from the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris say the images remind them of the Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. The Big Easy is definitely on my travel list, but until I get there, Pere Lachaise is still the mecca of cemeteries that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

You might think that touring a cemetery is morbid, but I visit cemeteries with the same attitude I would at any memorial. It is a place to honor the lives of those who have passed, learn some history about the era in which they lived and admire the architecture before you.

Pere Lachaise is steeped in history.  The brainchild of Napoleon, the cemetery opened in 1804, and there are over 300,000 people buried there today. The cemetery was considered too far from the center of Paris when it first opened, so a campaign emerged to get more funerals on the property. The strategy was to move the bodies of famous Parisians to the cemetery, beginning with Jean de La Fontaine, a French writer and poet, and Moliere, a popular French playwright and actor. The marketing worked, and common Parisians clamored to be buried near the rich and famous.

Oscar Wilde’s grave was a favorite, with lipstick kisses firmly planted on every inch of his memorial. Edith Piaf’s grave was laced in flowers and photographs the day I was there, which put “La Vie en Rose” in my head for the rest of my walk. Max Ernst, Gertrude Stein, Frederic Chopin – many of the greats are laid to rest in this picturesque place, making it a definite stop on your Paris tour.

I’m probably the only person who has been to this cemetery and not visited Jim Morrison’s grave. It wasn’t because of my disinterest in paying homage to The Doors lead singer. I just got lost trying to find it. Pere Lachaise is over 118 acres and easy to get turned around in. If you decide to visit the cemetery, I highly recommend checking out the online virtual tour at the cemetery’s website and buying a map from one of the shops across the street from the cemetery before entering. You can also preview Rick Steves’ walking tour of the cemetery in addition to his Paris iPhone and iPad apps.

Note: Another great resource of traveler’s comments can be found The New York Times Paris Travel board.