1825 A visit to Père la Chaise by N. H. Carter

[Part of an ongoing series reproducing articles that were written about Père-Lachaise during its early years, the following is from Letters from Europe, vol. 1, by American traveler N. H. Carter, New York: Carvill, 1827, pp. 391-98. In the early part of the article Carter discusses the funeral procession and burial at Pére Lachaise of General Maximillien Foy. I have included several prints of the Foy funeral procession, his first monument and subsequent larger mausoleum as well as a contemporary photo. Numbers preceded by the letter D refer to the division where you can find the tomb.]

We found the city of fashion, gaiety, and dissipation, dissolved in tears and clad in the habiliments of woe - a spectacle, which probably is not witnessed once in half a century. The death of General Foy, distinguished as a soldier and a statesman, esteemed for his talents, but still more for his integrity, his public and private virtues, created a sensation in the French metropolis, which I had supposed nothing short of a recurrence of the scenes of the Revolution, or another visit from the allied armies could produce. His funeral obsequies were attended on the day after our arrival. All classes of an enthusiastic people, from the nobility down to the humbler walks of life, appeared to participate in the tribute of respect to the remains of a man, who was universally known and as universally beloved. Every street through which the procession was to pass, in its progress from the church of Notre Dame, in which the funeral rites were solemnized, to the cemetery of Pere La Chaise, where the General was buried, a distance of two or three miles, was thronged with spectators, of both sexes, in carriages and on foot, who remained all day in the rain, to witness the military parade and pompous ceremony.

Our little party took a fiacre, (answering very nearly to a hackney coach in London or New York,) and joined the multitude, whose different equipages, costumes, customs, and manners, afforded much more interest, than the mere interment of a great man, who was comparatively unknown to us, and whose death could therefore occasion nothing more than a general sympathy for another instance of the common lot. A remarkable degree of order and decorum prevailed throughout the immense crowd, whose feelings seemed hallowed by the solemn occasion. There were no riots - no quarrels for places - none of that noisy and boisterous confusion, observable among the populace of England, and sometimes amidst large collections of people in our own country. While the procession was passing, not a voice was heard above a whisper, in the innumerable concourse, and if there chanced to be the least movement or bustle, a hiss soon checked the breach of decorum. The only confusion arose from the struggles of a company of young men, belonging to one of the public institutions, who were ambitious of carrying the corpse of General Foy, and were so enthusiastic, as to resist the arrangements for the ceremony, and to press their claims to the honour, till the hearse had arrived at the very gates of the cemetery. Every few minutes, they would rush up to the coffin, whence they were driven back by the military escort, but without any act of violence.


The whole day, from 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning, was occupied in the solemnity. We rode to Pere La Chaise at an early hour, and there waited till dark, expecting every moment the approach of the procession. Just in the dusk of evening, the flambeaux were seen to glare along the avenues, and upon the multitude of faces thronging the sides of the way. A long array of the military, carriages, and citizens on foot followed the nodding plumes of the hearse, occupying nearly half an hour in passing the gates of the burying-ground. It was impossible for us to make our way through the crowd, and approach near enough to witness the ceremony at the grave. Gleams of the funeral torches were alone distinguishable. The interment was not completed till 7 or 8 o'clock.

c. 1828

c. 1828

A temporary monument was erected over the grave, and hung with garlands of flowers in a few days after the burial; and the sum of eight or nine hundred thousand francs has since been raised by subscription, to defray the expense of a public mausoleum to the memory of the General, and to provide for his family. La Fitte, a rich banker, set the example of liberality by subscribing 50,000 francs, or 10,0OO dollars. The day after the funeral, portraits, prints, and biographical sketches of General Foy, as well as the elegiac effusions of the Gallic Muse, were for sale at all the shops in Paris. The papers were filled with eulogiums; pocket-handkerchiefs were struck off, bearing likenesses of the deceased; and in short, his name met you at every turn in the streets. He was of the liberal, or rather moderate party in politics, agreeing in sentiment with General La Fayette, of whom he was a personal friend. His death has produced a strong sensation in the public mind, not only at Paris, but throughout France, giving strength to the republican cause, in the guise of honours to his memory.

c. 1841

c. 1841

photo from Wikimedia 

photo from Wikimedia 

Our casual attendance at the interment of General Foy, and a subsequent visit on a day more favourable for observation, afforded us a full opportunity of examining the cemetery of Pere La Chaise, which is the great repository of the dead at Paris, and reflects infinite credit upon the city, as well as upon the character of the French people. In all respects it very far surpasses any thing of the kind I have ever seen, and the design strongly recommends itself to the imitation of all great cities. Were it possible for the inhabitants of New-York, en masse, to pay a single visit to this cemetery, I am persuaded they would at once surrender every lingering prejudice, and be unanimously in favour of adopting, a similar plan; for besides possessing all the conveniences of sepulture, on very moderate terms, a burying-ground, which in narrow enclosures and amidst a crowded population is generally a repulsive object, has here become a great monument of national taste and national feeling, inviting the stranger, as well as the citizen who is attracted by more sacred ties, to resort frequently to its rural; retired, and consecrated walks, where the body is refreshed by a pure air, the mind meets with themes for serious meditation, and the heart cannot fail to be improved.

Pere La Chaise is in the eastern suburbs of Paris, situated upon the declivity of Mont Louis, about three miles from the centre of the city. Its appellation is derived from a Jesuit of the same name, who was confessor lo Louis XIV. and at one time presided over the ecclesiastical affairs of France. As a recompense for his arduous services, his sovereign gave him this beautiful eminence, and built him a chateau near its summit, which was once the seat of the intrigues of his powerful order. Its site is at present occupied by a large and handsome chapel, approached by a lofty flight of steps, lighted at top by a dome, and surmounted by a cross, forming a conspicuous object at a distance. The edifice has recently been erected, and is destitute of any ornaments, or interesting associations, other than those that have been named.

The cemetery itself was commenced in 1804, under the auspice of Napoleon, and the superintendence of M. Brongniart. Its location is charming, commanding a full view of Paris and its romantic environs. The enclosure comprises an area of about seventy acres, on a surface so broken and diversified, as to embrace a great variety of natural scenery-rocks, hills, and deep vales. In many places the acclivity is so steep, as to render terraces and flights of steps necessary. The whole is encircled by a substantial and handsome fence. In front, there is a semi-circular recess, with lofty portals conducting to the principal avenues, which are wide gravel walks, and extend by the chapel to the extremity of the grounds. The gate is finished in a style of architecture, and with ornaments suited to the place, bearing over the top a Latin inscription of the following passage from the book of Job: -- “For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that I shall rise from the earth in the latter day.” On the right, are inscribed the words of the Evangelist -- "For he that believeth in me, though he were dead, shall live” -- and on the left of the gate is another inscription equally appropriate - “Their hope is full of immortality."

Such is the entrance to this great receptacle of the dead: and surely nothing can be more chaste in design, or more consonant with the spirit of the christian religion. Here are no altars erected “to the unknown God" - no evidences of those atheistical or deistical notions, which French philosophers have been accused of entertaining. The area of the cemetery is beautifully shaded with cypress and other evergreens, amidst the lively verdure of which the white marble monuments and tomb-stones, in every possible form, and wrought with much elegance, produce the finest and most picturesque effect. In some cases a solitary shrub hangs its sombre tresses over a grave; while in others, the monumental marble is completely embowered by the green branches. Every stone, every plant, every turf is adjusted with perfect taste. But the most striking and interesting features in the cemetery are the little marks of remembrance, feeling, and affection which the French manifest for their departed friends. Every variety of ornament has been devised to decorate the tombs. Most of them are enclosed by a neat railing. Some times miniature temples have been erected at the heads of the graves, and at others, bouquets of flowers are placed under glass covers, like those used for the ornaments of mantel-pieces. A profusion of garlands strew the consecrated sod, and are entwined among the cypress.

So vivid is the image produced by a multiplicity of these little decoration, composed perhaps of the pledges of mutual affection in life, as to seem almost to form a medium of communication between the living and the dead. Not a single grave, however humble it may be, bears the marks of dilapidation or neglect; and what will appear still more remarkable both in the United States and Great-Britain, all these fragile ornaments are daily exposed to crowd11 of people, high and low, old and young, without being in the slightest degree molested. In a word, this cemetery furnishes throughout, the most striking monument of a refined and delicate nation, that has ever fallen within the sphere of my observation. Something no doubt is to be ascribed to the influence of a popular and splendid faith, which enjoins it upon the living to visit the tombs of the dead at stated periods, and which sanctifies the humblest offerings, in the estimation of the multitude. On All-Souls day, immense crowds perform a solemn pilgrimage to Mont Louis, bearing garlands and decorations of every description, to be strewed upon the graves of their departed relatives, recollections of whom are annually revived, and sacred oblations poured forth to their manes.

 [In a footnote, Carter adds: In November, 1826, I again visited Pere La Chaise, to witness the rites of the Fete des Morts, in company with the author of the Pioneers and his family. [James Fenimore Cooper.] We saw along the road many pilgrims, bound to Mount Louis, and bearing garlands for the graves of their departed friends. The cemetery was filled with a crowd of both sexes, who had come to make their annual offerings. And renew their pledges of affection. Nearly all the inhabitants of the faubourgs adjacent to Pere La Chaise are employed in the manufacture of sepulchral monuments, and of little ornaments for the tombs. Since my last visit, Talma [D12], who I left treading the stage in the fullness of his dramatic fame, had made his final exit, in a style strictly tragic, amidst the years and the plaudits of his enthusiastic countrymen, adding another distinguished shade to the great congregation of the dead. A gust of wind and rain drove us from the cemetery, before we had time to pay a tribute to his grave.]

As Pere La Chaise is decidedly one of the most interesting objects we have met in our travels, I trust my readers will pardon me for subjoining a few additional particulars, especially as New-York and other places may hereafter think proper to adopt something of the same kind. Albany has already a burying-ground similar in design, though far inferior in artificial embellishments. In our country, where beautiful forest trees and shrubbery of all descriptions are so abundant, it is the easiest thing in nature to convert the church-yard of the humblest village into an attractive object, without any expense. Every person of taste and of feeling would prefer, that his grave should be shaded by a cypress or a willow, planted by the hand of affection, rather than decorated with the proudest marble that wealth and art could erect. But the two ornaments may be united, as they have been at Mont Louis; and although the ashes of the dead may regard none of these things, which arc of little moment in comparison with the other concerns of the grave, yet reason does not restrain us from extending our cares to the unconscious dust:

"E'en from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires."

The income arising from the settled price of interments in Pere La Chaise has been amply sufficient to defray the whole expenses of the cemetery, without imposing any public tax upon the city. There are three kinds of graves: First, those denominated fosses commune, in which the poor are gratuitously buried in coffins placed near each other. The trenches are four and a half feet deep, and are opened once in five years, which is a sufficient time for the body to be decomposed. Secondly, temporary graves, which are held for the term of ten years, on the payment of 50 francs. By paying 200 franks more, before the expiration of the time, the tenure may be rendered perpetual; otherwise, they must be given up, though monuments may have been erected. Thirdly, permanent graves, which are purchased at 250 francs the metre, and are secure from disturbance. About 100,000 persons have been buried here since the 21st of May, 1804, on which day the first funeral took place. There are two or three other cemeteries upon the same plan, in the suburbs of Paris; but they are small in comparison with this. The catacombs or subterranean repositories of the dead, extending for miles under the city, and running even beneath the bed of the Seine, are now undergoing repairs to prevent the roof from falling, and cannot on that account be visited.

This sketch of the abodes of the dead, which to some of my readers may be less interesting than the dwellings of the living, has already been protracted to such length, as to leave me little space to speak of some of the more remarkable monuments. The most conspicuous, as well as the most attractive of these, is the lofty tomb in memory of Abelard and Heloise [D07], the two unfortunate lovers who have been immortalized by the beautiful poem of Pope. It is in the form of a Gothic Chapel, formed out of the ruins of the Abbey of Paraclete, over which Heloise presided, and where she died in the 12th century. The mausoleum is 14 feet in length, 11 in breadth, and 24 in height, surmounted by four pinnacles at the corners, and one in the centre, rising 12 feet above the roof. Ten arches rest upon fourteen beautiful columns, six feet in height. This chapel contains the tomb built for Abelard at the Priory of St. Marcel, near Chalons, where he died. He is represented in a recumbent posture, with the statue of Heloise by his side. There is no doubt, that the real dust of the two lovers, after being removed from place to place, alternately united and divided, is at last here commingled. The monument is very complex, and loaded with a profusion of ornaments, with. a number of historical inscriptions, and an epitaph in Latin from the pen of Marmontel. One of our native artists, now prosecuting his professional pursuits at Paris, has made a very accurate sketch of the tomb, a print of which may perhaps hereafter be seen in the shops of Broadway.

Among the numerous other tombs of distinguished persons, chiefly grouped together in what has heen denominated the classical department of the cemetery, are those of the poets Moliere [D25], La Fontaine [D25], Delille [D11], and Chenier [D08]; St. Pierre [D11], author of the Studies of Nature, and of Paul and Virginia; Hauy [D60], the mineralogist; Fourcroy [D11], the chemist; Delambre [D11], an eminent astronomer ; Sonini [D04], the naturalist and friend of Buffon; Madame Blanchard [D13], the celebrated aeronaut and a hundred others too numerous to be mentioned. Delille's grave is surrounded by a beautiful little garden, and the marble in memory of La Fontaine is ornamented with the images of some of theanimals, that formed the dramatis personae of his Fables. One of the most interesting monuments is a stately mausoleum of black marble, erected in 1823, to commemorate the fame and philanthropy of the Abbe Sicard [D39], who signalized himself by his successful efforts for the instruction of the deaf and dumb. Near the top of the column six hands are portrayed in different positions, so as to spell his name, according to the signs manual adopted in his system of education.

In another part of the cemetery, along the brow of the eminence, are the tombs of many of the celebrated Marshals of France; Massena [D28], Davoust [D28], Lefebvre [D28], Decres [D39], Perignon [D24], Beauharnais, Ney [D29], and others. Many of them have lofty columns of marble, sculptured with emblematic representations of their achievements. Marshal Ney, who was shot by a file of his own soldiers in the garden of the Luxembourg, giving to them himself directions to fire, once had a splendid monument, which has been barbarously demolished since the restoration, and he now sleeps without even the record of his name. His grave is enclosed by an iron railing, and four beautiful cypresses raise their little pyramids of verdure at the corners.

On the declivity below the Chapel, and amidst the thickest copses of evergreen, stands a charming little cottage or bower, woven of reeds and thatched with turf. It is just large enough for a chair and small table, which still remain, though the door is locked, and the tenant has gone, I believe' to another world. Its history, as derived from the old man who conducted us through Pere La Chaise, is so romantic that I was not very anxious to inquire into its authenticity. As the story runs, another Abelard in enthusiastic, though not criminal love, was strongly attached to an accomplished lady, who suddenly died, and was here buried. Crossed and crazed by a hopeless passion, he erected this little rustic shrine over her grave, where be used to pass whole days in writing letters to the departed spirit of his Heloise, leaving them upon the table, and fancying that she came each night to peruse the messages of his unchanging affection.

Towards the northern side of the cemetery, and on the most elevated point of Mont Louis, is a section of the enclosure devoted chiefly to the interment of foreigners. In this silent assemblage of the dead, may be found representatives from every nation on the globe, who died in Paris and here rest side by side. The graves of the English, Scotch, and Irish, are the most numerous; and next to these, Spaniards, Germans, and Italians. Too large a group of our own countrymen add to the number and variety of the mixed congregation. A beautiful marble pyramid attracted us to the spot, where sleep the remains of Adam Seybert [D43], formerly of Philadelphia, a member of Congress, and author of a valuable work on the statistics of the United States. He died at Paris in May, 1825. The monument was erected by the piety of his son, and does credit to his taste as well as to his filial affection. Near by is the grave of Mr. Miller [D43], of New-Jersey, an eloquent and eminent young lawyer, who fell a victim to the ardour of his professional pursuits. He came out to France for the benefit of his health the last summer, and died soon after His arrival. In the same vicinity, are the graves of Richards [D43] of New-York, a promising young gentleman, educated at West Point; and of Tucker [D43], from Boston, who died, and were buried on the same day. Their premature deaths in a foreign land, far from their friends and country, produced a lively sympathy even among strangers. A monument was observed in memory of Mr. Smith of New-York [D43]; as also a remarkably neat column, erected by paternal affection, to commemorate the death of Louisa Butler [D43], a young lady from the United States, who died at the age of seventeen. With a tribute of sympathy for the fate of so many of our countrymen, we concluded our survey of Pere La Chaise, as I now conclude the prolix sketch of my observations.