A kind of pilgrimage

Paris cemetery Pere LachaiseOfficially known as the Cimitière de l’Est, Père Lachaise is perhaps the most famous cemetery in the world – and one of the few that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Many come to see the shrines of such iconic figures as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, or just to pay homage to the spirit of bohemian thinking and resistance that seems personified by this spot and the many who rest here.

Located in the 20th arrondissement, the 48-hectare tract was established in 1804 on the orders of Napoleon and has since become a pantheon to the great and famous of France, and beyond. Wandering among the imposing architecture of tombs and statuettes you might chance upon any of a long list of famous names, including Honoré de Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Maria Callas, Heloïse and her beloved Abelard, René Lalique, Molière, Modigliani, Yves Montand, Édith Piaf, Karel Appel, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Georges Haussmann, the man who rebuilt Paris into the grand capital it is today.

Oscar Wilde's gave at Pere Lachaise, ParisBut there is more to Père Lachaise than just a collection of many famous names. This is a place with a special aura. Almost inevitably there is an element of the macabre to its attraction, though besides the obvious it derives in part from the fact that this cemetery is not just home to many historic figures, but was actually very much in the thick of Paris’ turbulent history. It was here that the Paris Uprising of 1871 reached its bloody culmination when the final defenders of the workers’ district of Belleville were trapped by troops brought in to restore order.

Those Communards who didn’t die in action were executed against the Mur des Fédérés, to this day a shrine to followers of the extreme left. The events of the Semaine Sanglante merely add to the notoriety and strange appeal of Père Lachaise, marking it as a special spot for people with widely divergent beliefs and ideals. To each of these groups of people the cemetery is a symbol of a particular chapter of history whose influence on the present remains as strong as ever, and whose story they wish to cherish just as they honour the memory of the many great figures that reside here.

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