This large cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris is popular with tourists because some famous people are buried here. If you go in at the main entrance you can get a map to help you find the graves of people like Gioacchino Rossini, Maria Callas, Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde, and also to help you find your way out again. (This was the hardest part for me, as I had parked my bicycle by the upper entrance at Place Martin Nadaud.)
I think one of the graves in my photo (above) might be where the dramatist Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was buried (yes, the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), but the inscriptions are quite weathered, so I’m not sure.
This is my copy of the play Le mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais, first performed in 1784. Two hundred and twenty-three years later I saw a performance of this play at a small theater called Théâtre Espace Marais in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. (Also I once saw the play in German translation at the city theater in Kempton, Germany.)
Today this play is best known as the basis of Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro, which I have seen many times in Berlin, Hannover, Pforzheim, Munich, Bonn and Stuttgart, and in two different productions in Frankfurt.
Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro as the sequel to an earlier play of his, The Barber of Seville, from the year 1775. For opera-goers this can get a bit confusing, because Rossini didn’t compose his opera The Barber of Seville until 1816, whereas the sequel, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, had by that time already been in the repertoire for thirty years, since 1786. The solution to this seeming paradox is that Mozart wrote his opera as the sequel to an earlier Barber of Seville opera (from the year 1782) by a different composer, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).
The final scene of the novel the novel Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac is the burial of Goriot at Père Lachaise Cemetery at six o’clock on the evening of February 21, 1820, in the presence of two impoverished students but not his rich daughters or sons-in-law. After the hurried funeral, the student Rastignac found himself alone and took a few steps towards the upper part of the cemetery. From there he saw Paris “tortuously lying along both banks of the Seine, where the lights were beginning to shine.” This was possible because Père Lachaise Cemetery is on a hillside at elevations of 60 to 93 meters above sea level, which is higher than most of the city. The cemetery was still new at the time, having only been opened in 1804, so the trees were not yet tall enough to block the view.
To avoid confusion, I should point out that the word Père (= father) has two different meanings here. The character Père Goriot in Balzac’s novel is called that because he is the father of two daughters, for whom he has sacrificed everything. But the cemetery Père Lachaise was named after a bigoted Jesuit priest, Father François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who for many years was the confessor of King Louis XIV and had a decidedly negative influence on him, persuading him for instance to revoke his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes, which had granted the French Protestants (Huguenots) a degree of political and religious freedom.
Location and aerial view of Père Lachaise Cemetery on monumentum.fr.
My lead photo in this post is from 2007. I revised the text in 2020.