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Visiting Paris Cemeteries: A guide to Unique and Unusual Graves

For me, no trip to the City of Light is complete without visiting Paris cemeteries. Yes, because I seek out macabre history when I travel but also because they are stunning attractions, set in lush, landscaped parks, featuring fascinating and creative sculptures, and rich with stories.

Paris has 14 cemeteries operated by the city where you can visit the beautiful and historic graves of famous artists and thinkers, and opulent tombs of some of France’s richest and infamous citizens. These date to the early 1800s – when burials were banned inside the city limits (which was becoming unsanitary) and new cemeteries were built on the outskirts. Of course, the growth of the city now means these are no larger far from the centre of action.

Visiting Paris cemeteries is safe for solo women travellers. They attract thousands of tourists each day, so you won’t be alone. I’ve mostly visited these sites independently, but have also gone with a guide, which can be fun if you don’t have time to do a lot of your own research or if you don’t feel comfortable wandering cemeteries solo.

For most visitors on a short trip, it makes sense to start with the largest and most legendary: Père-Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre.  These are sprawling grounds but clearly marked. To locate a specific grave, check the map and note the Division (quadrant) and site number.

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Pére-Lachaise cemetery in Paris
Photo by David Mclenachan via Unsplash

Top choice: Père-LaChaise

Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris. It’s also apparently the most visited necropolis in the world, with remains of more than 2.5 million at rest here. If you only have time to wander one cemetery in Paris, make it this one. It’s dripping with Gothic ambience and I could easily spend half a day or more here.

Who is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery? Most North Americans know it as the burial place of Jim Morrison of The Doors – a grave which attracts so many fans it has its own fence and security.

There are so many notable burials here you could make your entire visit just hunting down all of them. But I recommend time for free wandering, as there are many creative and unique gravestones and tombs you are sure to be captivated and find your own favourites, famous or not.

Jim Morrison's grave at Père-Lachaise cemetery in paris
Jim Morrison’s modest grave at Père-Lachaise attracts many visitors

Some other notable graves to look out for: writers Oscar Wilde (which is now behind a barrier), Colette, Marcel Proust, Molière, Gertrude Stein, Honoré de Balzac; composer Frédéric Chopin, singer Édith Piaf, filmmaker Georges Méliès, visual artists Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Doré, Max Ernst.

Lipstick on Oscar Wilde's grave
Oscar Wilde’s grave back when you could still kiss it.

There are plenty of lesser-known graves or secrets of Père-Lachaise. Here are some of my favourites:

Aux Morts (to the Dead) is a large-scale memorial to unidentified Parisians. And behind its locked doors are actually an ossuary. When gravesite leases expire, remains are exhumed, boxed, tagged and moved inside here to make space for new graves on the grounds. (Current residents of Paris can still be buried at Père-Lachaise but there is a waiting list.) You can find it in Division 4 – straight walk up from the main entrance.

Memorial to the Dead at pere-lachaise cemetery
Monument aux Morts in Père-Lachaise cemetery

Belgian magician Étienne Robertson, known as the Prince of Phantasm, has a most unusual, fantastic and straight-up gothic tomb which is often missed. Division 8, near the entrance. Look up for the skulls.

The ashes of legendary punk singer Stiv Bators, who died of a brain injury after being hit on his motorcycle, were scattered over the grave of Jim Morrison by his girlfriend.

Maria Callas was cremated at Père-Lachaise but her ashes are not there. After being stolen, then recovered, they were spread out over the Agean sea. A monument to the opera diva remains in the crematorium.

The statue of a weeping woman at the grave of French scientist François-Vincent Raspail was used on the cover of Dead Can Dance’s album From Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. (One of my desert island discs!)

If you think you think Père-Lachaise is a bit overrun by plants, that’s intentional. Authorities have been “re-naturalizing” the 43 acres in part to help keep the site cool in the face of warming summers.

How to visit Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Père-Lachaise is open daily. 8am to 6pm in summer, 8am to 5:30pm in winter. Check the website for actual dates. On Saturdays, they open at 8:30am. On Sundays and holidays they open at 9am. Free to enter.

The cemetery is located on the right bank, in the 20th arrondissement, not too far from the Place de Bastille. It’s huge. There are five entrances but the main gate near the office and washrooms is at boulevard de Ménilmontant and rue de la Roquette. Metro station: Philippe Auguste. Don’t worry if you get off at Père-Lachaise Metro instead; there’s another entrance there.

And you don’t need to walk all the way back to where you started, exits at the end of the cemetery will take you to Gambetta Metro station.

Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
The boulevards of Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris

Feminist and Funereal: Montparnasse

Montparnasse Cemetery is the second largest cemetery in Paris, and my personal favourite.

Like Père-Lachaise, it’s large, lovely, and full of history. But I find the tombs at Montparnasse are particularly creative, with modern and Art Deco styles, and there are more notable women buried here.

It’s also located just a 10-minute walk from Paris Catacombs and close to Jardin Luxembourg, so makes a good full day of exploring when combined with either or both of those. Oh, and there was a famous incident of necrophilia! (Scroll down for the grisly details.)

Some notable women buried at Montparnasse Cemetery include writers Simone de Beauvoir, Mavis Gallant, Susan Sontag and Marguerite Duras, filmmaker Agnès Varda and actor/singer Jane Birkin.

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Charles Baudelaire grave detail
Goth girl with offering

The first time I went visiting Paris cemeteries I came to Montparnasse to see one grave in particular: Charles Baudelaire. The French poet and author of banned books like Les fleurs du mal, was a transgressive scoundrel, and much more of an influence on me than Jim Morrison.

Charles Baudelaire is buried with his family in a simple grave. To find it, look for the name Jacques AuPick – his stepdad. His name is underneath. There’s a more opulent memorial to Baudelaire at Montparnasse – a cenotaph that looks like a mummy!

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir forever.

Next up for me was visiting the grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yes, one grave. These intellectual giants had a love affair to die for. (Albeit an open one.) They are buried together in a simple grave with their names and years of birth and death. When I visited, it was covered in flowers.

I’ve read that when Sartre died in 1980, upwards of 50,000 Parisians crowded into the cemetery to pay respects. Not a sight we’ll see again in my lifetime, I think.

Serge Gainsbourg grave in paris
Serge Gainsbourg’s grave


Serge Gainsbourg’s grave in Montparnasse is one of the most popular with tourists visiting Paris cemeteries. The iconic French singer is on par with Jim Morrison in terms of influence in music and culture it’s safe to say. His grave is covered in framed photos and flowers and other tributes left by his fans.

One reason I love visiting cemeteries in Paris, or anywhere, is learning about artists I wouldn’t otherwise know.

For example, I was stopped in my tracks at Montparnasse by a scrap metal centaur. Turns out this was created by French sculptor César – who designed his own grave. He was a ground-breaking artist working with found materials and was an early adopter of plastics. And also has a centaur grave. Very cool.

Niki de Saint Phalle bird at Montparnasse Cemetery
Niki de Saint Phalle bird at Montparnasse Cemetery photo by Guilhem Vellut

There are other modern art gems in Montparnasse too. Accalimed and rad French artist Niki de Saint Phalle created two works for friends buried here. Check out the colourful cat marking the grave of Ricardo Nenon and look for a bird on the grave of Jean-Jacque. Most of her work is in famous museums but here you can see it for free.

Charles Pigeon grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris
Charles Pigeon grave at Montparnasse Cemetery photo by Guilhem Vellut

One of the most elaborate and memorable graves in Montparnasse is the tomb of Charles Pigeon, a businessman. He commissioned the piece while he was alive, to hold up to 18 family members. You can’t miss it—it’s a life-sized bronze bed with Charles and his wife resting in it. Overlooking the couple is an angel. For years it was illuminated by a lamp which the cemetery staff kept lit. (Pigeon was in the lamp business.) It’s quite extraordinary.

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Like all great cemeteries, Montparnasse has its share of oddities.

It’s not a grave for anyone, but the memorial La séperation du couple (Separation of the Couple) is a marble funeral sculpture of a distraught (nude) women standing over the open grave of a man who is embraced by death. It was originally made for the Luxembourg gardens but was deemed obscene and moved here in 1965.

If you see a grave covered in a box, what’s hidden inside is a famous modern art piece called The Kiss, by Constantin Brancusi. It’s for Tatiana Rachewskaïa, an otherwise unremarkable student who killed herself at age 23 in 1957. Her rich boyfriend bought this Brancusi piece of two figures embracing as an eternal tribute. The girl’s parents weren’t fans. And nobody is certainly why the sculpture was covered in a box in 2017.

Cemetery grave photo by Amaury Laporte

Finally, the necrophilia story. In 1848, groundskeepers found a bunch of bodies exhumed, mutilated, and (how shall I put this delicately) “enjoyed”. This continued until March 1949, to much consternation, when Sergeant François Bertrand was shot while up to no good in the cemetery. He was arrested and convicted of necrophilia, and jailed for (only!) one year. This earned him the nickname Vampire of Montparnasse.

How to visit Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris

Montparnasse Cemetery is open daily. 8am to 6pm in summer, 8am to 5:30pm in winter. On Saturdays, they open at 8:30am. On Sundays and holidays they open at 9am. It’s free to enter. Check their site for the exact and latest hours.

Address is 3 boulevard Edgar Quinet. The nearest Metro stations are Montparnasse or Edgar Quinet. We walked there from the Catacombs.

For the romantics: Montmartre

The Montmartre Cemetery has a grim history: it was built below street level in abandoned quarry, over a mass grave for those executed during the French Revolution.

Today it’s one of the prettiest cemeteries you can visit in Paris. If you don’t particularly like crowds, and you’re not hunting for a specific famous person, this is the cemetery for you. It’s not as intimidatingly vast, and there’s even a pretty metal bridge over several sections. Also, there are cats! Dozens of stray cats roam the grounds here.

There aren’t as many household names buried here but Montmartre Cemetery still has stand-out graves.

Memorial to Dalida at Montmartre cemetery in Paris
Dalida: great talent, tragic end

One showstopper is the white marble statue of of a glamourous woman surrounded by rays of gold. That’s Dalida. This superstar was born in Egypt to Italian parents and launched a singing career after moving to France. She recorded in multiple languages, and many genres, selling more than 150 million records in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s before a tragic death by suicide in 1987.

A dramatic bronze bust of Emile Zola presides over an empty tomb. The French writer’s remains were moved to the Pantheon where they rest with the greatest of French thinkers.

Théophile Gautier, a French Romantic poet and critic, has a statue of Poetry with her lyre guarding his grave.

There is also a full-sized clown. But I will say no more because Montmartre is really one of those Paris cemeteries best wandered with no preconceptions.

How to visit Montparnasse Cemetery

Montparnasse Cemetery is open daily. 8am to 6pm in summer, 8am to 5:30pm in winter. On Saturdays, they open at 8:30am. On Sundays and holidays they open at 9am. It’s free to enter.

Address is 20 avenue Rachel and its nearest Metro stations are are Blanche or Place de Clichy. There is only one entrance, down a flight of stairs.

Visiting Paris cemeteries
Paris cemetery photo by Kenny Orr via Unsplash

Visiting even more Paris Cemeteries

If you are short on time and/or staying around the Eiffel Tower, check out The Passy Cemetery.

Passy Cemetery is a small and peaceful cemetery. It’s the resting place of many politicians and socialites, with a few well-known Frenchmen such as painter Édouard Manet, perfumier Jacques Guerlain and composer Claude Debussy. An abstract golden sculpture by Georges Mathieu adorns the tomb of his beloved wife and muse, Adelaïde Mathieu d’Escaudoevres. And you can’t miss the white marble reproduction of La Pieta in the centre of everything.

The Passy Cemetery has a gorgeous Art Deco entranceway, and a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower and is steps from the Trocadero gardens.

Located at 2 Rue du Commandant Schloesing in the 16th. The nearest metros are Passy or Boissière.  

paris cemetery photo by linda gerbec via Unsplash

A unique spot if have plenty of time and you’re even more interested in visiting Paris cemeteries is the small, historical Picpus Cemetery – the only private cemetery in Paris open to the public.

Picpus Cemetery holds two mass graves filled with remains of 1306 people guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror. All other graves are reserved for families of these victims, who purchased the property in 1802.

Unlike the city-run cemeteries there is a charge to enter. Picpus Cemetery costs 2Euro. It’s open 2pm to 5pm Monday to Saturday. (Closed on Sundays and holidays.)

35 rue de Picpus (12th) between Place de Nation and Bois de Vincennes park. Nearest Metro is Porte de Vincennes.

Visiting Charles Baudelaire grave in Paris
A much younger version of myself visiting my favourite poet’s grave

Whichever spot you choose for visiting Paris Cemeteries, remember that these are sacred places, and many still welcome grieving family members. Picnicking, jogging, cycling, consuming alcohol, feeding the animals, or lounging around the grounds are considered disrespectful and are prohibited.

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