Père Lachaise Cemetery: Eternal Rest for Brilliant Minds

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Pere Lachaise Cemetery

It took six trips to Paris, but I finally made it to the world’s most visited cemetery: Père Lachaise.

What took me so long?  Years ago, I remember hearing that it wasn’t located in the best neighborhood. And like we so often do, I carried that unverified nugget of knowledge in the back of my head for years.  It didn’t actively keep me away from visiting, but it did keep me from prioritizing a visit.

The truth?  The neighborhood, the 20th arrondissement, is fine.  It’s not the most famous or gorgeous neighborhood in Paris, but it’s a perfectly good neighborhood where Parisians live, work, relax, buy baguettes, and sip red wine at cafes.  If there’s anything to watch out for, it’s the tourists — specifically, the intoxicated Jim Morrison groupies.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

While Père Lachaise is one of the most coveted cemeteries in the world, it wasn’t always that way.  It opened in 1804 and was declared too far from central Paris, and it wasn’t blessed by the Catholic Church, which kept lots of people away.  However, the bodies of Molière and Jean de la Fontaine were soon exhumed and transferred here, and from that point on, Père Lachaise became the “it destination” for the recently departed.

Hundreds of celebrities, writers, artists, and musicians are buried in this cemetery, and I knew that I didn’t want to miss any of the major ones — so I found an free online guide to Père Lachaise from Rick Steves.  This route would start from the rear entrance, near Gambetta station, and hit up some of the greatest hits.

Pere Lachaise Mausoleum

After walking past World War I and II memorials and discreetly dodging a funeral procession, I found myself in the Columbarium, next to the Crematourium.  Each cabinet, festooned with bright flowers, is filled with cremated remains.  Opera singer Maria Callas is among those entombed here.

The Famous Graves

If all the spirits of those residing in the cemetery decided to get together and have a cocktail party, it would be the event of the century.  You won’t believe the sheer number of artists buried here!

There are several popular graves located throughout the cemetery.  First up was the second most popular grave of all: that of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde's Grave

Oh, Oscar — a savior of outcasts, a romantic realist, and perhaps the world’s wittiest men.

It’s long been tradition to cover Wilde’s grave with lipstick kisses — particularly on the angel’s nether regions — but the recent addition of the glass wall keeps people from getting that close.  As you can see, there’s an additional fence around the glass wall!

My walk continued along the cobbled lanes in the faint winter sunlight.  I passed Gertrude Stein’s grave and the Holocaust memorial.  Next up was Edith Piaf.

Edith Piaf's Grave

The most famous French singer of all time — La Môme, or the Little Sparrow — had a very difficult life, from growing up in a brothel and singing on the street for money to the death of her longtime lover and a spiral into alcoholism that led to an early death.  Her grave is quite modest compared to the others.

From Piaf’s grave, I climbed a hill and then descended into the oldest part of the cemetery.  Rather than the easily navigable rows of graves among immaculate streets, the cemetery turned into an overgrown forest that wouldn’t look out of place in Hansel and Gretel.  At this point, the graves stood higher; statues were more commonplace.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Twists and turns led me past the graves of artists old and new — from Molière, who died in the 17th century, to contemporary musicians who died just a few years ago.

Molière, by the way, has one of the most entertaining death stories I’ve ever heard.  He was suffering from tuberculosis when he appeared in his play, The Imaginary Invalid, about a healthy man pretending to be sick to get attention.  Soon his fake coughs onstage turned to real coughing fits — and the harder he coughed, the more the audience roared with laughter.

Soon Molière’s coughs turned bloody, and he died in a coughing fit moments after giving his final line. The audience was hysterical with laughter.

Chopin is also buried in this section:

Chopin's Grave

Chopin’s grave was my favorite of the ones I saw that day.  And after spending years learning how to play so many of his pieces on the piano, it was nice to pay tribute at his final resting place.

After winding through these dark, fairy tale-like recesses of the cemetery, I burst out into a modern section and quickly found my way to the single most visited grave of all: that of Jim Morrison.

Jim Morrison's Grave

Now, how did an American rock star end up in the Parisian cemetery?  

In 1971, Morrison moved to Paris with the intention of drying out, staying sober, and getting serious about his writing.  Paris in the 70s was great for writing — not so much for sobriety.  After several months of living under a pseudonym and doing copious amounts of drugs, he died of a heart attack — most likely caused by an overdose — at age 27.

Morrison’s wish was to be buried in Père Lachaise.  While his musical legacy wasn’t enough to get him in, his writing was.

This grave is the busiest spot in the cemetery and I hear it’s an absolute madhouse in the summer.  I visited in December and there were only a few people there at once.  You’ll find a guard stationed at this grave at all times, mostly to prevent groupies from doing things to (or on!) his grave.

These are just a small portion of the famed citizens buried here — stick around and you can see the graves of Héloïse and Abélard (dating back to the 11th century!), Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Seurat, Marcel Marceau, and more.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

The Ultimate Waiting List

People are still being buried in Père Lachaise to this day, but as you can imagine, it’s a challenge getting in.  You may only be buried here if you lived or died in Paris, and the waiting list is long.  Bizarrely, plots are often leased for periods of 30 or 50 years.  If the lease isn’t renewed, the remains are exhumed, the grave is removed, and the space is made for the next person.

But jumping through those hoops could be well worth it.  To be entombed among so much prestige and creativity would be an incredible final honor.

Essential Info: Père Lachaise is free to visit and easily accessible by metro.  Take Line 2 to Père Lachaise for the main entrance; alternatively, take Line 3 to Gambetta for the rear entrance. I used this Rick Steves guide to navigate my way through the cemetery, which led from the rear entrance to the front.  As always, remember that a cemetery is a place of mourning and be respectful of those around you.

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26 thoughts on “Père Lachaise Cemetery: Eternal Rest for Brilliant Minds”

  1. i had a visit 2 years ago , love it there, wandering without a map/guide, and i was alone very fun at first, but when i got lost while searching for jim morrison’s grave, as the sun began to set, i started to panic, luckily i bumped into 2 Brazilians who were also looking for the grave, phew !

    1. Finally after 25 visits since 1974 we made it to the cemetery.
      Took the Eastbound 69 bus from Pont Neuf
      Visited graves of Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and a young lady who died in the Bataclan shooting last year
      Very peaceful place.

  2. I’ve lived in Paris nearly a year and a half and still haven’t made it to the 20th…better get up there before the summer crowds hit!

  3. I feel so lucky that I was able to feel Wilde’s tombstone before it was so secure! Père Lachaise is one of my favorite things to do in Paris, and not just because it’s free. The sheer history of the place amazes me every time. Gorgeous photos!

  4. This looks really interesting – thanks for the link to the online guide! I live in England yet I’ve never actually properly explored Paris (excluding a trip to Disneyland Paris when I was 9) – I think it’s high time I took a trip across the channel.

  5. I made it to Pere Lachaise but missed Wilde’s grave – how I managed that is completely beyond me! The 20th is not the most exciting neighbourhood but there is Rue Denoyez which is worth checking out.

  6. Great photos!

    It’s such a bizarre concept for a cemetery to be a tourist attraction, though I also visited a few years ago and the kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave did make me smile!

  7. Thanks for all the info to go along with the wonderful photos! I’ve always had a thing for wandering through old cemeteries, and this one looks especially neat eerie with all the old, famous graves. If I make it up to Paris when I’m in Europe next year, I’m definitely going to be checking this out. Thanks Kate!

  8. We stop in every time we’re in Paris. It’s such a nice place to walk and chill. The first time we were there the Wilde monument wasn’t gated and it was completely covered with red lipstick.
    Maybe you noticed A Cook Not Mad sticker near the Morrison grave from the last time we were there? 😉

  9. I’ve been to Paris multiple times and haven’t visited Père Lachaise yet.
    I know we had the opportunity to do so when I was there with school, but it was raining that day so I chose another activity.
    My next trip to Paris, I’m visiting this cemetery!

  10. I was really shocked at all the lipstick kisses and graffiti on Oscar Wilde’s grave when I visited several years ago. This was before the glass wall and fences were erected, which seem like a good idea to me.

  11. Do any horror/supernatural stories surround this cemetery? Imagine running in to a haunted ghost of Jim Morrison..

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I’ve never heard of this cemetery and will have to check it out next time I’m in Paris

  12. Never heard of this cemetery but it looks beautiful! After I explored Recoleta in Buenos Aires last year it definitely opened my eyes to the fact there are some truly fascinating cemeteries out there!

    1. I visited Eva Peron tomb in 2015
      People from all over the world were there
      Coffins of some were not entombed
      Some tombstones were neglected
      Near the Five Star Alvear Hotel

  13. Hi KATE!!

    WOWWW!! i was researching on Turkey, and came across your blog! You’re like everything that I want to be! I’m sitting at my desk in the office now, waiting for time to pass, and seriously — i’m just planning my next holiday. I was talking to my friend the other day, and I was seriously considering that i would want to take up a second degree in journalism and have a travel show one day! BUTTTT to see you doing it now, one person across the world living her dream — this is what i would live for!

    Only question is — how does this travel blog support you financially? Like what about it? Do you get paid per article? or via advertisements!

    Any kind of advice would be WONDERFUL! I hope someday SOON i will be able to live my dream of travelling around the world.

    Warmest Regards,
    Shehnas from Singapore! 🙂

  14. I am not sure how i feel about people visiting cemeteries for fun like this. You were perfectly respectful, but do we need to visit every celebrity’s grave? I think dying young and in Paris made this all the more romanticized.

  15. I had never heard of Moliere’s death – what an incredible story.

    I know that some find visiting a cemetery while traveling a little morbid but I think they’re fascinating. I will have to remember to add the 20th to our next trip to Paris.

  16. I visited Pere Lachaise with my oldest daughter during chestnut season in October 2013. We wandered its beautiful cobblestone lanes for 4 hours. Incredibly atmospheric, especially on a drizzly, foggy fall morning. The fog was so thick it was like walking through clouds and the majestic chestnut trees loomed overhead. Pere Lachaise has an energy of its own, the air heavy with souls, unseen eyes watching. We saw so many famous graves and left our lipstick kisses for Oscar, one of my favorite writers. We also visited the grave of the endlessly fascinating Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I had told my daughter I wanted to see Paris in the rain before we returned home, and that I hoped it rained when we visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise (huge Doors fan).. We left a rose plant on Jim’s grave, and as we did the thick fog turned to rain. When the guard overheard my daughter and I discussing the strange timing of this sudden rain shower, he said “Madame, we see Jim’s spirit here all the time. He is here.” I don’t doubt it!

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