I’m a big fan of cemeteries. An awkward opening sentence, but hear me out.
I find them very relaxing to walk around, and many are visually quite stunning, with plenty of vines, trees, cobblestone pathways, and headstones and crypts that are hundreds of years old. They’re also a little oasis of tranquility of sorts in the middle of busy European capitals – while the rest of the cities may be filled with the sounds of scooters, cars, sirens, music, and talking, all you usually hear in cemeteries are birds.
Not to mention the history – walk into the cemetery of just about any big city in Europe, and you’re bound to stumble upon the resting places of famous musicians, actors, revolutionaries, politicians, and other big names from pop culture and history.
Unsurprisingly, Paris is home to some lovely cemeteries, the biggest being Père Lachaise and Montparnasse. And, unsurprisingly, they’re home to the headstones of some truly formidable historical figures.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the slightly less famous, but nonetheless impressive, of the two: Montparnasse.
A Brief History of Montparnasse Cemetery
Montparnasse cemetery is tucked in the heart of its namesake neighbourhood, between the tower and railway station.
The cemetery was opened in on 24 July 1824 under the name Cimetière du Sud. The southern part of the city was outside of fiscal boundaries at the time and mostly agricultural land, filled with wheat and windmills (including the wingless windmill that still stands today). Originally owned by a religious community, it became national property after the French Revolution.
At 19 hectares, the cemetery is the second largest after Père Lachaise. Tree-line alleys separate the different divisions, which are clearly marked throughout the space. The cemetery itself is made up of two sections that are divided by Rue Emile Richard: a small eastern section known as Petit Cimetière and a larger western section known as Grand Cimetière.
Today, it is, to quote the Paris tourism office, “A haven of peace at the heart of one of the liveliest districts in Paris.”
Map of Montparnasse Cemetery
If you’re going to Montparnasse cemetery to pay your respects at the final resting places of its famous inhabitants, you’re going to need a map.
Fortunately, there are large signs by the entrances and around the cemetery that list and number the most well-known, with the numbers easily found on the map next to it. That said, there are many, and the cemetery can be a bit of a maze, so I’d recommend taking a photo before trying to seek anyone out.
Alternatively, you can do a simple Google search of a map of Montparnasse cemetery, and either print it out or store it on your phone.
Who’s buried in Montparnasse cemetery?
Montparnasse cemetery is home to many French philosophers, writers, singers, and actors. I’ve listed a few of its most infamous inhabitants below, but the list is by no means exhaustive – check out this map for a full list.
Poet, misanthrope, lothario, provocateur, musician, modern-day Baudelaire…. there are many ways to describe Serge Gainsbourg. The legendary French icon wore many hats throughout his illustrious and scandalous career, which was most active from the 1960s until his death in 1991.
Gainsbourg’s popularity and allure endures today. He is still an incredibly popular figure in French culture – you can’t even wander into a Monoprix without hearing the familiar beats of Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus or other hit songs.
At his grave in Montparnasse, one can typically find cabbages, old metro tickets, and Gitanes cigarettes left by fans.
Any fan of French New Wave films will know Jean Seberg, the American actress who made it big in France. Best known for films like Breathless and Bonjour Tristesse, Seberg was a muse to Jean-Luc Godard and a mainstay of 1960s and 1970s cinema.
After dying tragically young in 1979 of a probable suicide, Seberg was interred in Montparnasse.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is a name frequently mentioned in intellectual circles, and for good reason: among other things she was a writer, existential philosopher, feminist, political activist, and social theorist. She is perhaps best known for her influence on feminist theory, most notably her 1949 treatise The Second Sex.
Since her death in 1986 Simone de Beauvoir has been buried in Montparnasse next to her husband, fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. You can pass by her birth home – which is just a stone’s throw from the cemetery – when walking from the metro station.
Charles Baudelaire is one of France’s most famous poets, best known for his incredibly original prose-poetry. It is fitting that he is buried in the same cemetery as Serge Gainsbourg, whose lyrics were inspired by Baudelaire’s style of writing (he even named a song after him).
Though Gainsbourg was not the only one inspired, with other famous names like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud lauding Baudelaire.
Having his final resting place in the heart of Paris suits Baudelaire, who coined the term “modernity” – the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and art’s responsibility to capture that.
Another Parisian expat buried in Montparnasse is Samuel Beckett, an Irish avant-garde playwright, poet, and novelist. A key figure in the modernist movement, Beckett wrote many bleak, tragicomic, and minimalist works from his home in France.
Beckett’s grave can be found in the cemetery with a tombstone that matches his last specifications: “any colour, so long as it’s grey”.
World famous Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi was one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century and a pioneer of modernism. His academic training took him from Bucharest, to Munich, to Paris, where he made his career. His work – known for their clean geometrical lines – were influenced by primitive exoticism and Romanian folk art.
Brancusi worked in Paris and spent time with friends in his bohemian circle – which included Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and Guillaume Apollinaire – until his death in 1957. His grave and a number of statues done by him can be found in Montparnasse, including The Kiss.