Montmartre Cemetery: a Beautiful, Peaceful Memorial
With so many famous writers, artists, dancers, poets and actors hailing from Paris – or at least spending large parts of their lives there – it is hardly surprising that the city is home to some interesting and monumental graveyards. Though it may sound macabre, exploring these cemeteries is a fascinating way to discover the layers of history that have turned Paris into the diverse and artistic centre of culture it is today.
Whilst Père Lachaise and Montparnasse might be larger cemeteries, Montmartre is a beautiful spot to wander, reading the tombstones and enjoying the calm and tranquillity of the area. It is also in an ideal location – and just 20 minutes from Hotel Balzac – for exploring the rest of Montmartre, such as the vintage shops, museums and, of course, Sacré-Cœur basilica, perched on the hilltop overlooking the city.
18th Century Paris: A Grim Time
Life in Paris in the 18th century was not pleasant for most people – diseases spread quickly because of the cramped and unsanitary conditions, life expectancy was short and people were often too poor to afford proper funerals for their loved ones. The cemeteries of Paris became overcrowded, with plots becoming too full to continue using – even with coffins stacked one on top of the others metres down into the ground, they were running out of space faster than they could dig new burial sites.
In the 1780s, the Cimetière des Innocents – the cemetery used for Parisians since the Middle Ages – was closed. This was the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris and mass graves had often been used to dispose of corpses with speed and efficiency. Because of its overuse, many of the bodies had to be exhumed and taken to a new subterranean site, which was later covered over with the place Joachim-du-Bellay – a central Paris square near the modern-day Pompidou centre that still exists today.
A New Cemetery Opens
Montmartre Cemetery opened in 1825 in a disused quarry so was initially given the name la Cimetière des Grandes Carrières. The quarry had already been used as a mass graveyard during the French Revolution so, since the site was abandoned, it proved a perfect space to continue burying their dead. The cemetery is below street level and accessible from Avenue Rachel.
This destination is popular with tourists visiting the area as it is the final resting place of many artists who resided in Montmartre. During the Belle Époque period – between 1871 and 1914 – there was a creative boom in Paris. Many artists made Montmartre their home and the cafes and music halls here were full of the great minds and talents of the day – including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. It is for this reason that the cemetery in Montmartre still draws the crowds today – this is less a resting place of politicians and military leaders, and more somewhere the bohemian and avant-garde were buried.
A Final Resting Place for Creatives
Whilst many of the famous artists who spent their lives in Montmartre have been laid to rest in their home towns, family plots or in grand cathedrals, there are still plenty of interesting graves to find in the cemetery here. A map of the tombs, best routes to walk and visitor information about the people who were buried in Montmartre can be found here.
The celebrated ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky has a beautiful tomb in the cemetery, topped with a bronze statue of the dancer dressed as the puppet character he played in Petrouchka. Edgar Degas – the artist famous for his paintings and sculptures of ballerinas also rests here, as do composer Hector Berlioz, famous can-can dancer La Goulue and Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.
From the literary world, Alexandre Dumas fils, whose father wrote The Three Musketeers and who forged a successful career as a dramatist himself can be found here. Alfred de Vigny, the poet and novelist for whom one of our sister hotels is named after is also buried here, alongside German poet Heinrich Heine and Émile Zola, whose famous novels include Au Bonheur des Dames and Germinal.
Even if you don’t come to spot the famous graves, this site is still a beautiful and serene area to come for a leisurely stroll and escape the busy streets of the city. Some of the less well-known deceased actually have some of the most beautiful gravestones, sculptures and plants on their plots. This is the ideal start to a day in Montmartre - afterwards, take a short walk to the hub of the bohemian district for a delicious lunch in one of the relaxed cafes. It’s likely you’ll find a spot where one of the famous people you have just left behind might have sat and written in themselves…