The Big Three, Pari

cemetery paris montparnasse mausoleum

Much like the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries of London, Paris also has its own collection of large garden cemeteries. Often referred to as 'The Big Three' these cemeteries were built on what was once the outskirts of Paris with a similar historical evolution to their London counterparts.
saints innocents cemetery paris

After the French Revolution, Paris' burial sites were in a terrible state. Plague and war had caused a high body count and the cemeteries and graveyards were struggling to cope. The main offender was Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (Holy Innocents' Cemetery). What began as a cemetery with crypts and mausoleums soon became a site of mass graves with pits holding up to 1,500 deceased at a time, all chaotically piled on top of one another. This resulted in incomplete decomposition of the bodies and created a danger to public health. As early as the 1700s there were complaints about Saints-Innocents. Merchants of the nearby market Les Halles complained of the difficulties in conducting business near the site because of unsanitary conditions and perfume shops in the area went out of business due to the odour from the decomposing corpses making it difficult for patrons to smell the parfumiers’ wares!

Being a largely Catholic country, Parisians elected to be buried in their local parish church. The outsides of these were called ‘God’s Acres’ and were reserved for the lower classes, wealthier congregation members were able to be buried in the walls or floors of the church. The idea being the closer you were to the altar or other religious relics, the better chance you had of making it into Heaven…or at least it was a shorter journey! Space saving cremation was not an option as the Catholic Church forbade it, so soon Paris’ 52 parish churches were also full to bursting and burials within what would be commonly referred to as graveyard began.

Fontaine des Innocents cemetery paris

To reduce the number of interments, burial fees were increased. Whilst this helped the local churches out it did little to alleviate the problem. By 1780 over 2 million bodies had been buried in Saints-Innocents during its 600 years of operation. It wasn’t just the general public who were burying their dead there; the prison, morgue, hospital Hôtel-Dieu and sixteen different parishes were using it to dispose of their dead. Add to that the deceased from the three plagues Paris saw between the 13th and 14th centuries, and the many unfortunate inhabitants of the Cour des miracles (slums) around the city whose life expectancy was (probably mercifully) short, the problem soon became unmanageable. The decision to close Saints-Innocents, and other burial sites in the capital, happened September 4th 1780 after a spring of torrential rain caused a basement wall of one of the buildings parallel to the cemetery to collapse under the sheer weight of bodies. After this 'Intra muros' (burials within the city walls) were forbidden and a project was initiated to exhume and inter the remains in what is now an ossuary in the Paris Catacombs. The fermented acids and fats from incomplete decomposition, however, were saved and ’recycled’ into candles and soaps. Waste not, want not as they say!
The remains of those buried at Saints-Innocents (and other decommissioned burial sites in Paris) were later interred in what is now the Catacombs (you can read more about the creation of the Catacombs here).

In 1801 Napoléon assigned politician Nicolas Frochot the task of deciding how to solve Paris’ burial problem for the long term. Frochot called for the creation of four large cemeteries in the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western outskirts of the city, like points on a compass. Unfortunately the Cemetery of the West was never fully realised and a smaller cemetery; now known as Passy, was built to fill the need instead.

Père-Lachaise paris cemetery graves mausoleums

The first cemetery to be built was the Cemetery of the East, which later became known as Père-Lachaise after Père François de la Chaise, a Jesuit priest who was confessor to King Louis XIV and lived on the site where the cemetery was built. Frochot enlisted architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart to design the cemetery. Established in 1804 it holds the accolade of being the first Garden Cemetery in the world and which many other Victorian cemeteries based themselves on. In fact George Frederick Carden, the mastermind behind Kensal Green cemetery in London, was directly inspired by Père-Lachaise after visiting it in 1821.
Père-Lachaise is also the largest of the Big Three, at a sprawling 110 acres it has been expanded five times and has over a thousand monuments and overseen more than 2 million interments. Due to its celebrity clientele it attracts more than 3.5 million visitors a year making it the most visited cemetery in the world.

Montparnasse cemetery paris death

The second cemetery to be established was the Cemetery of the South in 1824. Later named Montparnasse, the 47 acres are now split into two sections (grand cemetery and petit cemetery), after the road Rue Émile Richard was built through the middle of it. Of the Big Three it is the second largest and was enlarged in 1847 due to its popularity.

Montmartre cemetery paris

The smaller of the three, the Cemetery of the North in what is now Montmartre, was the last to be built and was established in 1825. Much of the 28 acres of the cemetery is below street level due to it being built in an old quarry. Capitalising on this a road was built directly over the cemetery. It's very disconcerting to be in a place one usually associates with peace and quiet to have the sound of large lorries thundering overhead!

At first none of the Big Three were popular. It was very rare for Parisians to be buried outside of their parish, which was close to their homes. They believed the Big Three were too far out of town and since the cemeteries were non-denominational and not blessed, Catholics shunned the idea. It wasn’t until Frochot had the brilliant idea of interring celebrities into the cemetery in 1817 when he had the likes of La Fontaine and Molière transferred to Père-Lachaise that the idea of being buried in a well-landscaped cemetery took off. Over time, more celebrities were interred in some beautifully decorated mausoleums and tombs. In Montmartre the likes of artist Edgar Degas and writer Alexandre Dumas were interred, and in Montparnasse poet Charles Baudelaire and artist Man Ray were buried (in later posts I will talk about each of the Big Three in turn and go into more detail about their famous residents and spectacular structures).

sculpture headstone grave cemetery

Unlike the garden cemeteries of the United Kingdom there seems to be no restrictions on the type and style of sepulchres allowed in Parisian cemeteries. As a result the Big Three all contain a wonderful mix of old Gothic mausoleums that look like miniature houses to modern sculptures that wouldn't look out of place in an art museum. The cemeteries are also still in use, mainly for cremation but I frequently observed grieving relatives standing by family plots as their departed was lowered into the family tomb.

paris dead mausoleum rue graveyard cemetery
Unlike the Magnificent Seven, the Big Three are well maintained, not a single part is off limits and all are well laid out. A grid formation, almost street-like with avenues running between terraces of tombs (the idea was to create small cities of the dead), and green metal street signs indicate the 'Rue' you are on making it easy to navigate. Free cemetery maps are also offered by the entrances making locating your favourite famous Parisian a breeze!

by Amy Peters

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