At the Celebrity Cemetery in Paris, nature captures the attention of visitors

Dry leaves rustled under Benoît Gallot’s footsteps as he crossed the rough terrain. Pausing by bushes of laurel and elderberry, he pushed aside the foliage to reveal a crumbling stone colonnade. A parakeet, perched in a nearby tree, was singing.

It looked like a scene deep in one of France’s lush forests, but it was within one of the most visited cemeteries in the world, the Père-Lachaise, nestled between the busy boulevards in eastern Paris.

The cemetery has long been known as the final resting place of celebrated artists including Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Édith Piaf. But in recent years it has also become a haven for the city’s flora and fauna. Foxes and owls are among the many animals that call it home.

“Nature is regaining its rights,” said Gallot, the cemetery curator responsible for maintaining the grounds and allocating graves, as he continued his stroll among the gravestones surrounded by vines and weeds.

The greening of the necropolis stems from a plan created a decade ago to eliminate pesticides and transform the cemetery into one of the green lungs of Paris, while the dense capital redesigns its urban landscape to make it more environmentally friendly facing the ‘rising temperatures.

By encouraging wildlife in a place dedicated to the dead, these initiatives also caused a small revolution in the customs of French cemeteries.

“We’ve done a complete turnaround,” Gallot said. Père-Lachaise demonstrates that “the living and the dead can coexist,” she added.

Inaugurated in 1804, the 44-hectare cemetery – named after Louis XIV’s confessor, the Reverend François de La Chaise d’Aix – sits on a hill overlooking central Paris. Their oldest gravestones stood next to trees and plants in a park-like setting.

As the site’s reputation has grown, however, its lush greenery has diminished. The first was the arrival of the purported remains of playwright Molière and poet Jean de La Fontaine, relocated in 1817, prompting Parisians to want to claim their final resting place near the illustrious residents. Carved vaults and chapels protruded from the uneven ground of the cemetery, carrying away fragments of wildlife.

Today, some 1.3 million people are buried there, including Proust, Chopin and Sarah Bernhardt, a number equal to about half of the living population of Paris.

Then, in the second half of the last century, nature withdrew further following intense weeding operations. Unlike northern and central Europe — such as Britain and Austria, where gravestones are scattered across verdant landscapes — France and other Latin countries prefer graveyards that are austere and stony, according to Bertrand Beyern, a cemetery guide and historian.

“The smallest flower had to be removed,” said Jean-Claude Lévêque, the cemetery’s gardener since 1983. He recalled that several times a year, he and others dumped gallons of pesticides on cemeteries. “It was the ‘golf course’ mentality.”

This approach began to change in 2011, when the municipal government encouraged Paris cemeteries to phase out pesticides out of environmental concern. Gallot, who was then working in another cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, initially said he was “very hostile” to the initiative. But seeing the flowers bloom again and the birds return to their nests won him over.

A blanket ban on herbicides went into effect in 2015 and Xavier Japiot, a naturalist working for the city of Paris, said a “rich ecosystem” had developed as a result.

The oval leaves of cyclamen – with white, pink or lavender flowers – appeared between the raised crypts. Whole choruses of birds, including thrushes and flycatchers, settled in the huge cemetery canopy.
Some visitors have found the changes not only pleasant but comforting.

“This natural diversity distracts your attention from death,” said Philippe Lataste, a 73-year-old pensioner who wandered the cobbled lanes of Père-Lachaise. “It’s less scary.”

The most spectacular explosion in wildlife has occurred during a time of exceptional mourning: the coronavirus crisis. In April 2020, in spooky Paris under lock and key, Gallot found a pair of foxes and their four cubs in the cemetery, a rare sighting on the edge of the city.

“Seeing the puppies at that moment was very nice,” Gallot said, recalling a time marked by “non-stop funerals.”

The greening of the site has brought in a new group of visitors, the total number of which exceeds 3 million in a typical year. Now, alongside the influx of tourists seeking the more famous tombs, there are more locals drawn to the promise of a haven in nature.

One Sunday morning recently, 20 of these nature lovers went birdwatching in the cemetery, oblivious to the bitter cold that made their noses redden. Binoculars in hand, they listened attentively to the comments of Philippe Rance and Patrick Suiro, two amateur ornithologists who have made Père-Lachaise their new playground.

The most famous species here is the rose-ringed parakeet, whose green feathers and high-pitched chirps are hard to miss. Legend has it that the parakeet’s ancestors, native to Africa and India, escaped from a container at a Paris airport in the 1970s, and flocks of birds spread across the French capital.

Suiro said he’s counted more than 100 bird species in the past two decades. He was happy that the cemetery’s vast feline population, fed by cat enthusiasts who left kibble in open boxes, had dwindled, mainly due to sterilization operations, giving way to thrushes.

An avid naturalist, Suiro has also documented dozens of orchids, which he likes to call by their Latin names. “Epipactis helleborine,” he enthused during Sunday’s tour, pointing to a fragile stem standing between two moss-covered gravestones.

Beyern, a guide and historian of the cemetery, explains that the greening of Père-Lachaise reflects a broader shift in society towards environmentalism.

In Paris, a capital with little forest, the green vault of the cemetery helps to mitigate the effects of increasingly hot summers. Throughout France, “ecological” cemeteries have sprung up, encouraging the use of biodegradable coffins and wooden headstones.

The new layout of the Père-Lachaise park has had unexpected consequences.

Cemetery officials have become accustomed to dealing with fans who get drunk near Morrison’s grave or cover Wilde’s headstone with lipstick kisses. But right now, Gallot said, they’re busy chasing joggers and people who lay out picnic blankets.

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