Pere Lachaise

By Christopher Zoukis  Pere Lachaise

It covers 118 acres of prime land, which would be worth several fortunes to modern developers.  Just thinking about it must cause developers to drool.  I mean what a waste of prime real estate! 

Pere Lachaise it’s called.  Victor Hugo once said, “To be buried in Pere Lachaise is like having mahogany furniture.”

The oldest cemetery in Paris, Pere Lachaise opened for business in 1804.  And did so by royal command of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was responding to a national emergency:  a lack of new burial sites.  So many dead and so little room to bury them.

Indeed, the ‘no vacancy’ problem came to Napoleon’s attention when, the relics of corpses at Cimetiere des Innocents (a cemetery in Paris), as if rising up at the Rapture, shifted, literally breaking through the wall of an apartment complex in which resided the living.  Spewing corpses into the basement of the building, along with a mist of mephitic effluvium, which practically asphixiated the residents, the incident set off government legislation closing all Parisian cemeteries and churchyards to further burials.

Nicholas Frochot, the city planner, by some mysterious means, purchased 118 acres of land from Baron Desfontaines, land that had once upon a time belonged to Louis XIV’s confessor, Pere Lachaise. 

Frochot had another amazing talent.  Not only was he the city planner, he also proved to be a promoter equal to P.T. Barnum of circus fame.  For initially the cemetery lacked business, a strange response especially under the circumstances.  Frochot decided that what his cemetery needed was cachet.  He implemented the old adage that nothing breeds success like success.  So he arranged for popular and famous corpses to move there.  The reburial of certain, select coffins and their slumbering contents, of course, such as celebrity authors Moliere and La Fontaine, was launched.  And just to be sure, Frochot secured two superstars of the most romantic type, the earthly remains of Heloise and Abelard. 

Almost overnight Pere Lachaise was the place to be seen.  It was without argument the second most prestigious place to be buried in Paris.  Instant status:  the rich and famous among the rich and famous.

Even today, prestige is not the only appeal.  The setting is unequalled with its view of tree-lined avenues, of the city of lights.  Which explains why there is a waiting list:  a list of the living, waiting for the dead to make room for the dying.  With over 10,000 tombs, there is no room left, unless your family owns a vault in perpetuity.  There exists, though, a five-year plan.  A plot may be leased for five years, after which time the remains are deposited in what is called the central ossuary – a kind of elephant’s graveyard for human bones.  Only unlike elephants, which go to the elephant’s graveyard to die, the ossuary is where the dead are dumped after their five-year lease expires.  Then the plot is re-leased for another five-years to some other applicant. 

And business is good; there are no slow seasons.  

Therefore it is a preferred location since residence implies flamboyance, class, and a certain amount of wealth, because the plots do not come cheap.  Indeed, Frochot himself is buried over in section 37.

The power of place.