If you want to really get under the skin of a place, visit the cemetery. Only in the cemetery do rich and poor rub shoulders in quite the same way. History is written in names, dates and sometimes photographs. You can see the rise and fall of artistic traditions, immigrant communities and fortunes if you look hard enough. Reading a cemetery is, in a way, like reading the city.
For this reason, we ended up in Montparnasse Cemetery one quiet Saturday. Located in the centre of París, the cemetery occupies 19 hectares in one of the French capital’s most chic neighbourhoods, and is estimated to contain 19,000 graves. In autumn, it’s particularly beautiful as the turning leaves of the cemetery’s 1200 trees give the whole place an almost pretty look.
Like many of the cemeteries in central Paris – including those at Père Lachaise and Montmartre – Montparnasse Cemetery has become something of a tourist attraction given the number of illustrious citizens who have taken up permanent residence there. With a little time and attention, the visitor can find the gravestones of the great and good including the thinker Jean Baudrillard, the writer Marguerite Duras, sociologist Emile Durkheim, the writer Charles Baudelaire and the philosopher Raymond Aron. Several Latin American writers are also residents, including César Vallejo, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar.
Perhaps the most-visited tomb is that of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, shining lights of French intellectual life following World War Two. The simple tomb – bearing nothing but the couple’s names and dates – is littered with stones and metro tickets left by admirers.
Another notable memorial is to Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish official who was falsely accused of sedition at the end of the 19th Century for having predicted the antisemitism which swept Europe during the first half of the following century.
The headstone of Man Ray is perhaps the most touching of the cemetery, bearing an unusual epitaph (‘Unconcerned but not indifferent’) which has since been used for a retrospective of the artist’s work, and which was chosen by Man Ray’s widow Juliet, as they were the words he had often used to describe himself in life. The grave looks something like a love-letter, with the original side of the headstone signed ‘love juliet’.
The cemetery is free to enter and maps are available at the entrance. Nearby attractions include the Cartier Bresson Foundation, the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Pantheon.
Sunday and public holidays 9am-5.30pm
Last entry 15 minutes prior to closing
Address: 3 Boulevard Edgar-Quinet, 75014
Tel: 01 44 10 86 50