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Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

DSC02228For reasons I can’t completely explain, the great cemeteries of Paris are among the city’s major tourist attractions. There is the amazing statuary to be seen, yes. There are the graves of the rich and famous, certainly. There is the other-worldly scene of what amounts to a low-lying stone city, of course. Historical events connect to the cemeteries and their occupants, undoubtedly. And yet, there is something else, and while I can’t define it, I am certainly drawn by it. And since today is Halloween, it seemed the day to write about it.



Two years ago, we visited Pere Lachaise, the biggest of the cemeteries; that visit is recorded in a Gumbo blog. This year, we visited Montmartre Cemetery, within walking distance of “our” neighborhood. It’s a fascinating place to visit, in many ways very different from Pere Lachaise. It feels more crowded, in some areas less maintained, and above all, it is dominated by family mausoleums of every size, shape and degree of adornment.





The mausoleums are no accident; space has always been an issue, and the mausoleums cover family vaults of various sizes that mean multiple burials on each site. Some are elaborate enough to have small stairways to the vault; in others, the floor stones are lifted to give access.



DSC02230 There are very few cemeteries in Paris, and only three are more than an acre or two. No accident: by the late 18th century Paris had become a crowded city of too many people and too many corpses, and the small parish graveyards and larger cemeteries began to be thought of as a menace to health.




DSC02240 Fame large and small: Edgar Degas, and the inventor of the moped


In the early 19th century, the problem was “solved” by two measures. One cleared the existing cemeteries, with most remains moved to what has become the Catacombs; the other created three large new cemeteries outside the city for new burials. Over the years that followed, the three—Pere Lachaise in the east, Montmartre in the north and Montparnasse to the south—were all surrounded by development and became part of the city.




More of the "memorable:" Gustave Guillaumet, Orientalist painter; La Goulue, one of the famous Can-Can dancers and models, and Paul Derval, long-time director of the Folies Bergere, and his wife.


Each of the cemeteries has its own list of famous “residents,” although none of the others can top the throngs of pilgrims visiting Jim Morrison of The Doors at Pere Lachaise. But Montmartre has its own stars, including AmpÈre the physicist; Berlioz, Delibes and Boulanger the composers; Dumas fils, Zola, Stendhal among the writers; Heinrich Heine the poet; Degas and Gerome among many painters, and La Goulue, the most famous of the Can-Can dancers. FranÇois Truffaut is there, and so is Sacha Guitry. Not to mention the man who dropped the guillotine on Louis XVI and many more.


DSC02203But the first thing you notice about Montmartre Cemetery when you enter through its only gate, on Avenue Rachel, is that you’ve dropped below the level of the surrounding streets; in fact, Rue Caulaincourt crosses it on a steel truss bridge. The site selected for the cemetery in the 1820s had previously been a large gypsum quarry. Abandoned before the Revolution, it first took on its role as a necropolis when it was used as a mass grave during the Revolution and Reign of Terror.




The tombs under the overpass seem a bit strange; it's hard to remember they are actual burial sites and not merely a crowded storage area for funerary monuments.



DSC02244 The cemetery today has both low areas, starting under the overpass, and high ranges both along some of the walls, and some plateau-like areas in the center, where tombs rise above tombs, and the whole scene takes on the appearance of an eerie city of tiny homes and churches.


 Wandering through it for an hour on a chilly August day, after one rain shower and waiting for the next, I took far, far too many pictures. The fifty or so here are the survivors of a winnowing process. I hope you’ll find them interesting.



No, not that Fiat. And it's a wreath, not a tire...


DSC02216Polychrome metal, August 31, 1918


Some "modern" styles work here and some don't...Photo insets are becoming popular. An all-marble version looks like particle-board but a cast-iron version holds up well. As for the "tomb with a view," it reminded me of a bus stop.







Touching memorial to a mixed-religious couple:

"To our father, who guided our way," and "to our mother who brightened our lives."












Bernard Lecache, who dedicated his life to publicizing the struggle against racism and anti-semitism, sometimes in spectacular ways, continues the struggle from the grave.




 Victor Brauner, Romanian surrealist sculptor, provided the main element for his tombstone, shared with his wife.







 The cemetery has living inhabitants as well, mostly cats. It's forbidden to feed them, but as you can see at the top of the column, there are regulars who ignore that.




That's not neon or a digital panel below; just strongly-colored stained glass at the back of the mausoleum.














This one's for the Duke of Montmorency



And what does it LOOK like he's doing there?




 Another couple of successes at modern styles







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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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I noticed that...but for me, the hardest moment of the afternoon was the sense of relentless mortality I felt at the grave of Louise Weber, "La Goulue." To look at the severe and confining stone box, and think at the same time of the image we carry of her...


The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations


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  • Toulouse-Lautrec_-_Moulin_Rouge_-_La_Goulue

Speaking of la Goulue, you know the neighborhood, PHeymont.  She could have just about fallen off the stage at the Moulin Rouge into that box.  The famous nightclub is at the bottom of Rue Lepic, mentioned in a recent blog, and some of my "best friends" were can-can dancers.  Before someone asks, not la Goulue.  And don't feel bad, P., she's enjoying the rest.

She died nearby, as well. She returned to Montmartre in 1928, a year before her death, and eked out a living selling matches and peanuts on a corner near the Moulin Rouge.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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