Montparnasse Cemetery, with a surface area of 19 hectares, is the second largest cemetery in Paris. It is located in southern Paris and was opened in 1924.
When you come in at the main entrance, at 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, there are some laminated cemetery maps hanging by strings on a nail on the little guard house to your left. You are welcome to borrow one to help you find the graves of famous people, but they ask you to return it when you leave.
This photo shows the family grave of the Baudelaire family, including the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The first name on the gravestone is that of Jacques Aupick, Baudelaire’s stepfather.
Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) was a Romanian playwright who wrote mainly in French. Two of his short ‘absurdist’ plays, La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson), have been playing continuously since February 1957 at the Théâtre de la Huchette at 23 rue de la Huchette in the Latin Quarter.
I saw both of these plays on a rainy night in November 1966, in their tenth year at this venue. As of 2017 they are still playing five nights a week (Tuesday through Saturday) and are always sold out, so it is essential to book ahead if you hope to get a ticket. The big blue “60” above the door is a reminder that the two Ionesco plays are now in their 60th year of continuous performance.
Jean Seberg (1938-1979) was an American actress who starred in 34 films in Hollywood and in Europe, including The Mouse that Roared with Peter Sellers and À bout de souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard.
Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929) was a French sculptor who lived and worked in the Montparnasse district of Paris. His former atelier, at 18 Rue Antoine Bourdelle, 75015 Paris, is just a short walk or bicycle ride from the cemetery (800 meters from the cemetery entrance on Boulevard Edgar Quinet). See my post Bourdelle Museum in Paris.
A younger sculptor, Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), also lived and worked in the Montparnasse district. His former atelier on rue d’Assas, now a museum, is less than 600 meters from the cemetery entrance. See my post Zadkine’s sculptures in Paris.
Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was a French singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor, director and probably a few other things that I have forgotten.
The author Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was born in Vietnam, which at that time was a French colony. She spoke fluent Vietnamese with the local children, but spoke French at home and at school. At age 17 she left Vietnam and moved to France, her parents’ native country, where she studied mathematics and political science. During the Second World War she worked for the Vichy government but was also active in the Resistance, which was where she met and worked with François Mitterrand, who much later was elected President of the Republic.
In one of the potted plants on her grave, her fans have left her an assortment of pens so she can go on writing. Also a circle of stones and a sea shell.
When I got home I started looking through my books, including some that had been packed away and inaccessible for a few years, and discovered that I have ten books by Marguerite Duras, some of which I had completely forgotten about.
Her books about Vietnam are still my favorites, like Un barrage contre le Pacifique (known in English as The Sea Wall and in German as Heiße Küste), an autobiographical novel about growing up in French Indochina. See my post Mekong Delta tour 1995.
The most often-visited grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery is no doubt the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), two of the most prolific and influential French authors of the twentieth century. Their grave is easy to find, just off to the right if you come in by the main entrance to the cemetery on Boulevard Edgar Quinet. This is one of several graves in Paris cemeteries that are sometimes kissed by visitors.
One day when I was there in 2014, the grave of Sartre and Beauvoir was covered with flowers, notes and especially bus and métro tickets, weighted down with little stones so they wouldn’t blow away. You can tell that some of the tickets are bus tickets because they are marked “sans correspondence”. These are one-off tickets that you can buy from the bus driver. They cost a bit more than tickets from the machine, and do not allow any transfers.
The notes on the grave were mainly in English and addressed to Simone de Beauvoir. They read, for instance:
- “Simone, thank you!”
- “One is not born but becomes a woman.” (A quotation from Simone de Beauvoir’s book Le Deuxième Sexe = The Second Sex.)
- “The greatest love affair.”
- “Never have I mourned so much for a woman I have never known.”
- “You inspired me to do great things.”
A friend of mine was there a year later, and found that everything had been cleared off the grave and all the kiss marks had been washed off. But when I returned in 2017 some new kiss marks had appeared and there was one message, in an envelope addressed in neat handwriting to “M. Jean-Paul Sartre”.
It happened that on this particular visit to Paris I was exploring Montparnasse and the nearby districts with the help of a little book called Le Paris de Sartre et Beauvoir by Pascale Fautrier. Towards the end of the book, the author tells how she experienced the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1980: “I was fifteen years old and with a friend from school I followed the huge procession which took Sartre from his last studio to his last home, as they say, in the Montparnasse Cemetery. I saw Beauvoir, whose work I was still ignorant of, perched above the grave and staring at the coffin …”
Six years later several thousand people accompanied Simone de Beauvoir to the same grave. On that day Pascale Fautrier opened one of Beauvoir’s books for the first time. It was Les Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a dutiful daughter), the first volume of Beauvoir’s autobiography, which made a lasting impression on her for its “énergie de vivre libre” (literally “energy to live free”).
It turns out that the house where Simone de Beauvoir was born, above what is now the café La Rotonde, is only about 300 m northeast of where she is buried. She lived most of her life in Montparnasse or in nearby neighborhoods such as Saint-Suplice, Saint-Germain-des-Près or the Latin Quarter, all on the Left Bank of Paris. Even in the years when she and Sartre were both teaching (in different schools) on the other side of the river, she never considered moving to a bourgeois district such as Passy or Auteuil.
In 1955, with the royalties from her best-selling novel Les Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir bought an apartment in this building at 11 rue Victor Schoelcher, which borders directly on Montparnasse Cemetery. The building has 21 apartments on eight floors, and was built in 1925. She lived here alone (or for several years with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann), but not with Sartre, who had his own apartment on the other side of the cemetery, one km away.
The plaque reads: “Simone de Beauvoir / 1908 – 1986 / Author of The Second Sex / Writer, Philosopher / lived in this house / from 1955 to 1986”.
Entrance to Montparnasse Cemetery: 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014 Paris
Location and aerial view on monumentum.fr
My photos in this post are from 2014 and 2017. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Le Paris de Mitterrand by Michèle Cotta.