For the more curious and the less seasoned, the Père-Lachaise cemetery can be likened to a real labyrinth. Located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, it is now one of the essential places to visit in the capital. This intramural necropolis extends over no less than 43 hectares, being part of the parks and gardens managed by the town hall of Paris.
Each year, no less than three million visitors enter this place of meditation. With some 70,000 burial plots in Père-Lachaise, walkers have the opportunity to discover, each time they pass, new graves with stories each more astonishing than the next. Singers, actresses, writers… In the divisions of this place are distributed many celebrities well known to the French. Marie Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Marie Laforêt, Edith Piaf… These are the French personalities who rest within its walls, but not only . The famous American singer Jim Morrison and the Irish novelist Oscar Wilde were also buried here.
How did this Parisian cemetery, known throughout the world, establish itself as a cultural place to visit compared to these counterparts of the Montmartre cemetery or the Calvaire cemetery? Sylvie Le Clech, historian and general heritage inspector (Ministry of Culture) gave us two answers.
As Sylvie Le Clech, historian and general heritage inspector, reminded us, its location was one of the first factors of its popularity. “It is against the federated wall and given the symbol in the memory of Parisians, especially in a popular district, the cemetery has in fact become a political “place of memory” first then people as much as a cemetery” told us she explained.
Secondly, it was the graves that were built over the decades that allowed him to gain notoriety. “It contains not only famous burials, but also burials that are real architectural masterpieces, so it has also become a place for walking…Which cemeteries are often in the romantic sense German “friedhof”, explains the specialist. Like “the older generations”, it is “very usual to go with the grandmothers to walk in the cemeteries, not only did this allow you to meditate with your “celebrities” (the celebrities of your own family, your gods lares finally) but also the celebrities we chose”.
If for some, strolling around the Père-Lachaise cemetery can be a real chore, for others it is a real passion. Taphophilia, an attraction for tombs, cemeteries and any element related to death, is little known. However, they would be more and more numerous throughout the world and especially in France. This is what Juliette Cazes, independent researcher in thanatology and author of the Le Bizarreum site told us. “I created a club of taphophiles which is a participative Instagram account a few months ago and which already brings together several hundred enthusiasts. Many people who visit cemeteries and enjoy it don’t know there is a term for them. I think there are more people than you might think who like to walk between the tombs”, she explains.
Member of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, she has made thanatology, the science of death or in other words the study of death, her full-time profession. “I have always been passionate about funerary facts since my childhood and I followed a university course in archeology and anthropology”, explains Juliette Cazes and continues: “I passed my diploma of funeral adviser and master of ceremonies with significant field experience ranging from crematorium work to body requisitions in addition to the rest”. It is therefore quite natural that in 2017 she created the media Le Bizarreum in order to “allow people to take an interest in these subjects through science. I popularize information for the general public alongside my daily research work both on the web and by writing books on the subject.”
A profession that is in no way “unhealthy or voyeuristic”, she assures us, allowing us to be interested in “how our ancestors took care of their dead” while being “a good way to open our minds to the other and to what matters to him and to his dead. It’s a committed subject too, death affects everyone and there are inequalities on this subject. It is important to point this out to allow things to evolve”.
Like the taphophiles, the necrosophist Bertrand Beyern has made his passion for the history of burials and cemeteries one of his main activities… To discover in our 2nd episode.