Instead of Hallowe’en, the French traditionally celebrate ‘La Toussaint’ (All Saints’ Day) on November 1. It is on this day that families clean graves and place fresh flowers and decorations on the tombs of their ancestors.
The most famous cemetery in France is possibly Père Lachaise in Paris. At 110 acres, it is also one of the largest and filled with the graves of famous people. It was established by Napoléon in 1804, and named after a priest, Père François de la Chaise, who used to live on the site.
For a long time, it contained 13 graves so the authorities transferred the remains of poet Jean de la Fontaine and playwright Molière to Père Lachaise cemetery and suddenly people wanted to be buried there.
By 1830, it contained more than 33,000 graves, and it was expanded over and over again.
Today it contains the remains of more than a million people, not counting the ashes of those who have been cremated.
People are still buried there although the waiting list is very long and few plots are available. Those which are tend to be tiny, and the conditions are strict (the deceased has to have lived and/or died in Paris).
Due to overcrowding, authorities now generally issue 30-year leases on graves, so that if a lease is not renewed, the remains can be removed to the Aux Morts ossuary, which lies behind the Aux Morts monument in the same cemetery.
Père Lachaise attracts 3.5million visitors a year, many of them drawn by the number of famous people interred at the site.
Oscar Wilde’s grave is surrounded by clear screens to protect it from the ravages of his fans, who used to leave lipstick kisses on it. Now, the protective screens are covered in lipstick kisses and fans throw copies of his works over the top.
Another oddity is the grave of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813) who was a chemist, a nutritionist and a health expert.
He established the first obligatory smallpox vaccination campaign, pioneered refrigeration as a way of preserving food, as well as the extraction of sugar from beets, and promoted the potato as a food source.
Considered only fit as animal food, Parmentier promoted it by multiple market stunts including serving it at dinner parties, and giving bouquets of potato leaves to famous people.
Shepherd’s Pie is known as ‘Hachis Parmentier’ in France and any dish containing his name will contain potatoes, most probably in the form of a covering layer of mashed potato.
Which is why his grave in Pére Lachaise is decorated with potatoes (in various stages of decomposition).
The grave of Jim Morrison sometimes attracts fans who attempt to play his music but this is frowned upon as a mark of disrespect.
Chopin’s grave attracts many visitors who leave floral tributes, but Edith Piaf’s grave is even more covered with flowers.
The grave of journalist Victor Noir has a sculpture of him lying down with his hat beside him on the ground, just as if he has just been shot, which is how he died.
The sculptor, however, sculpted his man with a generous bulge, which has inspired some to claim that stroking it and kissing his lips helps a woman conceive. As a result, some spots on his effigy are shinier than others, and he is more famous in death than in life.
It is best to buy a map at the gate, so that you can find the graves you are looking for, whether it is Modigliani, Sarah Bernhardt, or the tomb of France’s most romantic lovers, Abélard and Héloïse.
He was a philosopher who was hired to teach Heloise, a rich young noblewoman. They fell in love, had a child together and married in secret. But when her uncle found out, he placed his niece in a nunnery and had Abelard castrated.
The lovers never met again, but the letters they exchanged for the rest of their lives are famous. Their bones were buried together in Père Lachaise in 1817 and today modern lovers leave letters at the tomb.