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Pere-Lachaise Cemetery

The most famous, or better yet, infamous, of these burial grounds was the Cemetery of the Innocents. The Cemetery of the Innocents (Cimetiere des Innocents) started as a small churchyard cemetery for the Church of the Holy Innocents around the twelfth century (the area had been used as a burial ground dating to the Roman times). A market and the cemetery existed side by side in a sort of mutual harmony. The cemetery was good for the market’s business since the steady stream of burials and funeral processions brought people to the market. The market was good for the cemetery’s business since it was an attractive location and the Catholic Church profited from burial fees. Eventually the cemetery expanded and began accepting burials from sixteen different parishes, the morgue, the prison and Paris’ largest hospital, the Hotel-Dieu. Plagues in 1348, 1418 and 1466 brought even more bodies. Bodies were typically buried in open pits that held about 1,500 corpses each. Even with various expansions, the cemetery was only about 400 feet by 200 feet. At one point, the ground level was raised to accommodate more bodies. Later, the bodies were dug up and placed in arcades around the cemetery. By the middle of the eighteenth century, around two million Parisians had been buried in the cemetery. Finally, in 1763 Parliament opened an inquest to figure out what to do with the ever-expanding cemeteries. Alas, the theological interests quashed the inquest since the church made money extracting funeral and burial fees.

By 1780 the burial crisis came to a head when a basement wall in a building next to the Cemetery of the Innocents collapsed, sending upwards of two thousand bodies in various states of decay tumbling into the basement. It would take another six years before the government and the church could agree on how to properly move the bodies to a new location while preserving the tenets of the church concerning death, burial and the afterlife. The other problem, of course, was, despite the ban on burial, Parisians kept dying. That problem initially fell upon Napoleon Bonaparte who delegated it to Nicolas Frochot who established the first new cemeteries in Paris. Those cemeteries and Pere-Lachaise (Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise) in particular became the template for all future cemeteries, not only in Paris but also over much of the world.

Cemetery of the Innocents

Place Joachim du Bellay, site of the Cemetery of the Innocents. Finished in 1550, the Fountain of Innocents is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris. 48° 51′ 38.17″ N 2° 20′ 52.43″ E

In what seems like a clever irony, cemeteries are not for the dead. The dead, of course, could care less. Cemeteries are for the living. They are the place we go to remember and to honor the past and those who created it. We go to experience our own mortality. We go to see fantastic art and architecture. We go to get close to celebrities and history makers. And cemeteries aren’t the only places we’ll go to remember. We’ll go to Washington, D.C., to view a long black granite wall and touch the names of those who died in the Vietnam War. Or we’ll journey to New York City to touch the names of the victims of 911. Visitors to Paris may wish to visit a makeshift memorial above a tunnel beneath the Pont de l’Alma where on August 31, 1997 a twentieth-century princess met her end.

The cemeteries and monuments in Stories in Stone Paris cut across a wide swath of the last two hundred years of Paris history. It is, of course, quite impossible to list every important person or monument. So, while you are going from monument to monument, stop and linger at others along the path and make some discoveries and explorations on your own. Cemeteries and memorials are places for us to truly understand that our time in this realm is fleeting. Honor those places. Honor your life and those around you.

Tour guide Thierry Le Roi at Oscar Wilde tomb, Pere-Lachaise

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