Prior to the 19th Century, there were no public cemeteries. Instead, the living relied on mass graves and church graveyards for the disposal of corpses. Following the French Revolution, those in charge sought to eliminate the sanitation hazards posed by then existing burial practices, as well as the stench from decomposing bodies. Perhaps of equal importance, the authorities wanted to create public parks that would inspire and teach. At the time, there were no public parks. The Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Bois de Boulogne were not available to the public, as they are today.
Père Lachaise was Paris’ first public cemetery. It was established by Napoleon, who had decreed that, “Every citizen has the right to buried regardless of race or religion.”
It designers have taken full advantage of the hill that rises from it grounds, building layered terraces among the trees. The light that filters through the trees and foliage is nothing less than spectacular. It can blind in the mornings, when the light rushes down the narrow the lanes created by rows of mausoleums. The light takes on a blue cast on late winter afternoons, just before the bell rings signaling that the cemetery’s gates will close in 15 minutes. The fall color cast is complementary to the winter one. The sky and the sunlit tombstones turn orangish-yellow.
When the light cuts openings in the leafy canopy above the trees, the shards of light breaking through turn the moss encasing the tombs and the roofs of mausoleums a bright green, with more yellow than green reflected from the surface. And then there are the backlit tombs, crosses, and statuary. Throughout the day, as the sun moves from the eastern to the western sky, single tombs are illuminated while dark shadows shroud surrounding ones. Sometimes only the face on a carved statue is lit, as if mother nature were acting as the lighting director for a Shakespearean theatre company.
Light and shadow make Père Lachaise and the other Paris cemeteries an enjoyable place for a morning or afternoon walk. The light adds mystery, accenting both the natural and man-made features. These cemeteries are no different in that regard than New York’s Central Park. The scene and atmosphere are forever changing. I suspect, however, that if you are in the cemetery long enough, nature’s light show does repeat. But classic plays are always worthy of a second or third viewing.
[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]
Bare Trees, Blue Light on a Winter Afternoon (Père Lachaise)
Blue Light (Père Lachaise)
The Anguish of the Survivors (Père Lachaise)
Winterlude (Père Lachaise)
Complementary Colors on a Late Winter Afternoon (Père Lachaise)
Projected Head (Père Lachaise)
Pale Blue and Limestone (Père Lachaise)
Green (Montparnasse Cemetery)
Moss in the Afternoon Sun (Père Lachaise)
Double Crosses (Père Lachaise)
Backlit (Père Lachaise)
The Coronation (Père Lachaise)
Dirt and Sun Light (Père Lachaise)
Sculptor Who Famously Carved a Bored Teenage Aristotle (Père Lachaise)
Light at the Top of the Stairs (Père Lachaise)
The Pathway to Unlimited Devotion (Père Lachaise)
Terraces in the Afternoon Sunlight (Père Lachaise)
Photographer’s Notes: Many of the photographs in this essay are from my December 2018 trip to Paris. Others are from earlier visits. Some were originally rejected by me. I don’t know why I rejected them, but when reviewing all my Paris image files in early January 2019, I rediscovered them. They looked pretty good, which is why when in doubt, save the file and then go back to it.