5 Iconic Grave Sites You Need to Visit in Paris
Many people are astounded to learn just how many well known individuals are permanent residents in the cemeteries of Paris. The grave sites of many an artist call the city of Paris home, most of them completely free to the public for viewing.
During the revolutionary years, Paris became the hub of arts as we know it. It saw refuge to writers, painters, photographers, actors and singers from all over the world. May of whom lived out the duration of their lives in the city until their death days.
Within the municipal boundaries of Paris there are a total of fourteen cemeteries. Most of them are already full, and all of them incredibly beautiful, peaceful pieces of land.
Père Lachaise Cemetery is definitely the most well known grave site attraction in all of France. It is the biggest of the fourteen and was also the first ever garden cemetery in the nation.
You’ve likely heard of this resting ground if the subject of Jim Morrison’s grave has ever come up. The site is world famous and is estimated to bring in around 3.5 million visitors per year. Dare I say that is far more visitors than any being still alive has received.
Amongst the other fourteen sites is the Montmartre Cemetery, Passey Cemetery, Saint Vincent Cemetery and the Picpus Cemetery; to name a few.
Thousands upon thousands of grave sites line these gardens. Each one with a unique history and story to tell. A popular pastime in Paris amongst both locals and tourists is grave site hunting. It’s quite exciting roaming the space and recognizing names on a whim.
There are, however, a few iconic grave sites that are not to be missed during your visit; both from an aesthetic and a historic standpoint. Here are my top five!
1. Oscar Wilde’s grave site in Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery
Because of its size, there are many ways to enter the Père Lachaise Cemetery when in the 20th arrondissement. The best way is, of course, the main entrance and can be found over on Rue du Repos.
While this cemetery is home to many an icon, like the afore mentioned Jim Morrison, today we are here to find the Irish author, playwright and poet; Oscar Wilde.
On November 30th 1900 Wilde passed away due to cerebral meningitis that set in after an operation for an ear infection. His body was found in the Hotel d’Alsace in St Germain, Paris. This hotel is still in business to this day over in the 10th arrondissement and the room in which he passes is available to hotel guests for a hefty fee.
The burial site of Oscar Wilde gained controversy over the years as it became a popular occurrence for visitors of the grave to leave a lipstick stained kiss on the tomb. A well known line of Wilde’s was “A kiss may ruin a human life” — so the kissing gestures were genuinely poetic.
In 2011 the city of Paris, fed up by the sultry “vandalism” of the Wilde grave, erected a glass casing around the entire grave site keeping the serial kissers at bay.
Fifty years after Wilde’s death, his only known lover and best friend, Robbie Ross, died in Paris. In a beautiful display of love her ashes were placed into Oscar Wilde tomb so that the two may lay together for eternity.
What makes Oscar Wilde’s grave so interesting is the elaborate winged-sphinx creature that is carved into the top of the stone. The creature is also naked, which sparked much controversy over the years. So much so that the grave site was covered with a tarp during daylight hours for a period of time.
Graves aside, the 20th arrondissement is a bustling district filled with all sorts of entertainment. Not far from the main entrance to Père Lachaise is my favorite Korean restaurant in Paris; Shingané.
The restaurant is over on Avenue Gambetta. I return time and time again for their miso soup and kimchi pancake! Try one of each and then go give Oscar a kiss from me, will you?
Average cost: Under €30
2. Marie Antoinette’s tomb in Paris
Saint Denis Basilique
In 1774 Louis XVI became the king of the French monarch. His wife, Marie Antoinette ascended the throne as his queen.
You’ve probably heard her name in passing along with the quote “let them eat cake”; something Antoinette was rumored to have said upon hearing that the peasants of that land had no bread left to eat. While there is no actual evidence to support this ever having happened, the reputation of the words sticks with her even today.
In 1792 monarchy came crumbling down due to the economic crisis that brought about the French Revolution. All those involved in the government were brought to trail in 1793, Marie Antionette being one of them.
Within two days the Revolutionary Tribunal convicted her of high treason and she was sentenced to death by execution. She was killed via guillotine at the Place de la Révolution that same day.
Needless to say our girl Marie was not popular amongst the people. They cheered as her dismembered head was held for all to see. Her body was originally dumped in a mass grave but was recovered soon after by a few individuals who wanted to see her properly buried.
This is the site you can visit today at the Saint Denis Basilique, an exquisite medieval church in the centre of Saint-Denis. Entrance is free and the gothic architecture is quite a site to behold.
Marie Antionette’s story is one that epitomizes the trials and turmoils that went on during the French Revolution. Consider organizing a guided walking tour that can further elaborate on the exact events during this time in Paris. It’s a great way to connect to the city from a perspective that isn’t so romantic for a change.
3. Serge Gainsbourg
Cimetière du Montparnasse
Montparnasse Cemetery is one of the main attractions to the Montparnasse district. This area in Paris is lesser known but defiantly up and coming in terms of things to see and do.
The Montparnasse Tower, for example, is the best skyscraper view that encompasses the whole of Paris. It is such fun to stand at the top and point out Parisian landmarks in the skyline. The Eiffel Tower is an easy one to spot. Venture up with friends and see who can pin point the most.
The Montparnasse Cemetery is the second largest one in Paris after Père Lachaise. It is also a garden cemetery and is incredibly beautiful to explore during the spring and summer when the flowers come out to play.
Because of it’s size, it is best to know what graves you are visiting before arriving at the grounds. We’re here to pay homage to a true Parisian icon; Serge Gainsbourg.
This man is considered a legend amongst the people of France. He was an incredibly talented entertainer who accomplished more than most during his 62 years on this planet. Some of his many titles include singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director — just to name a few.
Gainsbourg’s name lives on through the streets of Paris to this day. Maison de Serge Gainsbourg is a street over in the 1st arrondissement that is filled with graffiti tributes to the man himself.
Fans frequent this road to take a photo in front of one of the impressive murals — worth a visit if you’re in the area!
Gainsbourg’s grave in Montparnasse Cemetery is a modest one. The only thing that makes it particularly identifiable is that there are almost always fresh flowers or offerings on top of the tomb stone.
His stated cause of death was from a heart attack during his sleep. See you in the next, Serge.
4. Édith Piaf
Père Lachaise Cemetery
Oh Édith, where do we start?
Another one of the most beloved artists to emerge from Paris during the last century; Édith Piaf was one of the nations most successful songwriters, performers and film actress’.
You might know her from the film La Vie En Rose in which French actress Marion Cotillard plays Édith in a biography of the artists life. For most people not familiar with early 1900 music, this is how they first came to know and love the Parisian star.
Édith’s story is captivating. She was born into extreme poverty in 1915 and raised in a Paris based brothel. The global success she managed to achieve throughout her life is astounding and her work lives on today.
This is another famous grave to visit at the Père Lachaise Cemetery; Piaf shares the land with her grave mates Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.
The 20th arrondissement has been less able to let go of the superstar. Just a short walk from the main entrance on Rue de la Py there is a tribute bar dedicated to the singer called Bar de la Place Edith Piaf.
The atmosphere is cool and laid back — a great place to enjoy a glass of wine or cold beer after your visit to the grave site.
Across the cemetery and out of the north-most entrance you’ll head into a neighborhood called Menilmontant. This is an up and coming part of Paris in terms of trendiness and is full of history.
On Rue Crespin du Gast sits Piaf’s apartment where she spent most of her early life. Today the space is known as the Édith Piaf Museum and can be viewed by appointment. It is a fascinating trip though the life of the performer.
All in one day you’ll be able to do three Édith Piaf themed excursions; the grave, the bar and the museum! Merveilleux!
Édith Piaf Museum entrance fee: free
5. Samuel Beckett
Cimetière du Montparnasse
For our last site we visit another great who is also based over in Montparnasse cemetery.
Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright and theatre maker who is best known for his absurdist and existential works. Waiting for Godot was one of his most famous plays. Not many people know that Beckett was also a Nobel Prize winning author.
In 1989 Beckett lost his life to a battle with emphysema. He has been a resident of the Montparnasse cemetery every since. His grave is another one of more modest stature; occasionally you’ll find bunches of flowers or plants placed as an offering.
If after this grave visit you haven’t yet had enough interaction with the deceased for one day, Montparnasse Cemetery’s southern tip just about touches the entrance to the Paris Catacombs.
The Catacombs are one of the must see attractions in all Montparnasse. They are the tunnels that were built underneath Paris over a century ago as a solution to the overflowing cemeteries around the city.
The tunnels are paved with the bone fragment remains of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives during the revolution periods. It became a hygiene concern to have these bones above ground, so it was decided a permanent resting place was to be built.
Combining this activity with a after visiting the grave of Samuel Beckett is a full dose of Parisian history rolled into one. Two world featuring very different renditions of death coming together in a peaceful way. I say our absurdist friend Beckett would approve!
Catacombs entrance fee: €13
The city of Paris is overflowing with iconic grave sites to visit no matter what side of town you happen to be in. Like everything else, Parisian grave sites are somehow always charming and not in the slightest way creepy.
While its fun to have some sort of idea of who you are going to visit when entering these landmarks, it is equally as much fun to roam the graves blindly and allow the residents to find you.
Either way, for a few minutes you’re basically rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest icons to have lived! Happy hunting!