The Montparnasse Cemetery was one of four cemeteries created in the 1800s to replace church cemeteries in Paris (which happened to be why the Catacombs were created). It opened on July 25, 1824 as Cimetiere de Sud (or de Midi, accounts differ). It is the second largest cemetery in Paris, behind Pere Lachaise, housing over 40,000 graves on 19 hectares of what was formerly farm land (“Montparnasse Cemetery — Facts and Graves”). The site includes a 14th or 15th century windmill (sans blades), one of the final remaining windmills in Paris. In the 18th century, it served as a tavern and the center of an open-air dance hall. The site also contains over 1,200 trees, creating a contrast between the abundance of life and death in one space. The cemetery is a bit strict on who can be buried there— only people who died in Paris or lived there are eligible to be buried there. However, if you’ve been buried there too long— that is, your tomb becomes abandoned— they will empty it and reuse your plot for one of the 1,000 new burials they see each year.
Some of the most notable people buried in Montparnasse Cemetery are: Charles Baudelaire (poet), Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (existentialist philosophers and writers), Guy de Maupassant (author), Samuel Beckett (author, best known for “Waiting for Godot"), Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty), Charles Garnier (architect of Opéra Garnier), Man Ray (photographer), and Brassai (photographer). People flock to see their graves (some more than others) and images of some can be found below.
Experiencing the cemetery is much more powerful than just reading about it. Back in America when preparing for this class, I knew I wanted to go because I really enjoy visiting graveyards and seeing the ways in which people are memorialized and remembered. Setting foot in the cemetery, though, was something else entirely. Walking in, the sheer scale is astounding. As far as the eye can see, there are so many graves, one after another, nearly on top of each other. They’re quite economical with their space— in America it seems every grave has a certain radius of space, but here, they’re all right up against each other. It makes it seem a bit crowded and overwhelming, but also a bit like a treasure hunt. To find the good stuff, you have to trek.
Outside the walls, the city of Paris crops up, almost peering over the walls to observe the contents. There are skyscrapers and apartment buildings overlooking the cemetery at rather close proximity. This provides an interesting backdrop that emphasizes our tour’s theme: Life and Death in Montparnasse.
Inside the cemetery, it is a lot quieter than out on the streets of Paris. You’re never too far from a street, and yet, it all seems to fade away into white noise. You can hear birds chirping, your feet crunching on the gravel, branches moving in the breeze. Cars honk far in the distance, but it’s not disruptive. Occasionally, you can hear an ambulance, further emphasizing our theme, and forcing you to reconcile where you’re standing with facts of life. It is sobering, but peaceful. You can walk with your own thoughts and little distraction.
Visitors are also noticeably quieter inside, and certainly more contemplative. They pause to take in the many unique graves, and stare in wonder at those of their idols. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave is adorned with red lipstick kisses. I did not see anyone kiss the tombstone myself, but the evidence is apparent. People frequently photograph (as did I) the many unique graves. Every time I thought I was done photographing, I’d stumble upon another that would outdo the ones that I saw before. If there’s one word to take away from this cemetery, its “dramatic”. The graves are extravagant, between large sculptures and mosaic cats, there’s always something new around every corner or behind every mausoleum. Not a lot of people get to see some of the less-traditional graves because they hesitate to wander off the paved road— but if you do, it is worth it. Although it can be difficult to navigate around the nearly overlapping graves, you will be rewarded for your effort, as that is how you can find Man Ray’s grave, and many other unique memorials for resting people.
Overall, the cemetery is not an overwhelmingly sad place, but it does force you to consider all those that have come before. One thing I noticed in particular about this cemetery is the lack of children’s graves. I’ve spent a lot of time in American graveyards, and there are always children buried with their parents in family crypts. I spent hours over the course of two days exploring the Montparnasse Cemetery, and not once did I encounter a child’s grave. I didn’t notice close birth and death dates, or the traditional (perhaps only American) way of denoting children in a graveyard: with a lamb (I took a whole religion class at Washington & Lee called “Death and Dying,” and we learned (among other things) about the ways in which different people and religions are marked in graveyards). This stuck out to me— why were there no children? Was it cemetery policy? Or something else? Upon looking into it, I found that over hundreds of years, France’s child mortality rates have been lower on average than the United States’. This could offer a possible solution as to why I never saw child’s graves.
Beyond this observation, the cemetery also makes you think about the ways in which we memorialize people in general, the ways that has changed, and how it will evolved into the future. Now, your ashes can be turned into diamonds, or trees, or any number of interesting things that are more environmentally savvy than a traditional graveyard. It seems like we want to move away from tradition, to move into a new space we can call our own, even in death. But these graveyards remain in spite of our progress, and are worth visiting as a remind of how far we have come.