Whether to pay respects or to enjoy the fall colors, November 1 is a great day to explore the 20th’s cemeteries
It’s a gray Friday November 1, the All Saints’ Day holiday. The weather is warm, but it rains on and off. Umbrellas go up just to be taken back down, particularly to ease the passage along the crowded avenue du Père-Lachaise. Displays of chrysanthemums spill out of florists’ shops and onto the sidewalk, creating a sort of multi-colored carpet leading to one of Père-Lachaise Cemetery’s gates. Inside the cemetery walls, families tend to their loved ones’ graves or pay respects at the columbarium. Tourists gather to listen to guides’ explanations or hunt for celebrities’ gravestones.
Created in 1804, Père-Lachaise is the Paris’s largest cemetery, at nearly 44 hectares (110 acres), and is among the world’s most famous and most visited cemeteries, attracting some 3.5 million people a year. With its tree-lined allées, labyrinth of graves and famous residents, the cemetery merits its reputation as an open-air museum and pulls tourists to the 20th arrondissement.
But the 20th is home to two more of Paris’s 14 intramuros cemeteries: Belleville and Charonne, which are equally interesting and have their own claims to fame.
As old as Père-Lachaise, the 1.8-hectare Belleville cemetery was built on the site where inventor Claude Chappe tested his optical telegraph between 1790 and 1798, at the city’s highest point (128 meters above sea level). The cemetery along with Belleville village were annexed by Paris in 1860. Ironically, Claude Chappe is buried at Père-Lachaise.
The Charonne cemetery is the smallest of the three, at less than half a hectare, but is the oldest. Built behind the 12th-century Saint-Germain-de-Charonne church, the cemetery is thought to be as old. It is also one of the last two cemeteries in Paris to adjoin a parish church, giving it a village feel. Like Belleville, the Charonne cemetery and village were annexed by Paris in 1860. In 1963, the church and its surroundings got their 15 minutes of fame, hosting the final scene of the cult film Les Tontons Flingueurs.
While it’s harder to get lost in these smaller cemeteries, it is easier to find solitude, even on a November 1.
8 boulevard de Ménilmontant (among other gates)
40 rue du Télégraphe
119 rue de Bagnolet