In the dilapidated cemeteries of Paris, a grave is only for the rich

Shortage of space in city cemeteries means most Parisians are shipped to suburbs after death

Even the dead, it seems, cannot escape the rocketing property prices of Paris.

A shortage of burial plots means the wealthy are being asked to stump up as much as €15,528 for a place in a city cemetery while the poor are being shipped out to the banlieues. Even fame and wealth, however, cannot guarantee a final resting place in one of Paris’s 14 inner-city cemeteries, such as Père Lachaise, where Chopin, Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison are interred.

There are about 14,000 deaths in Paris every year, with 5,000 requests to be buried at city cemeteries. But authorities say there are now only 150 paid-for places available a year.

A report by Cour des Comptes, the state auditors, last week declared Paris cemeteries “saturated”. “The freeing up of plots can only happen by taking back concessions that have expired and have not been renewed by the families, or, in the case of in-perpetuity concessions, when the tomb is in a state of abandonment,” it said. This was complicated by many of the old abandoned tombs, including many at Père Lachaise, being listed buildings, it added.

Père Lachaise attracts two million visitors a year and contains 70,000 tombs and about a million bodies. Its paths are scattered with horse chestnuts and many older sepulchres are abandoned, their grand stone porticos, intricate carvings, statues and wrought-iron decorations dilapidated and rusty. Dozens of graves have crumbled into overgrown stones.

Opened in 1804 on land acquired from Louis XIV’s confessor, after whom it was named, the site was not popular until Napoleon had the body of Louise de Lorraine, Henri III’s wife, moved there as well as the remains of the poet Jean de la Fontaine, the dramatist Molière, and celebrated lovers Héloise and Abelard. The grand mausoleums built before 1900 are listed and cannot be touched.

The Cour des Comptes found the shortage of space in Paris’s 14 cemeteries had been compounded because up to 97% of plots had been sold in perpetuity. The rarity of remaining plots has sent prices soaring. Between 2008 and last year, the cost of an in-perpetuity grave rose 40% from €11,086 to €15,528. The Cour said many families were opting for shorter concessions, but the cost of these had also risen to between €414 and €2,229 for a one-metre-square plot. “The very high cost price of funeral concessions inevitably leads to the reserving of burials for the more well-off,” the report concluded, suggesting city authorities begin “a programme to take back concessions … to cope with the need for new places in the coming decade”.

The Cour said that city authorities should manage cemeteries “to allow everyone living in, dying in or having a tomb in Paris to be buried there”. It added: “The city is yet to set out its main objectives concerning the management of the cemeteries.”

By law, each French commune must provide an individual grave for every deceased person for a period of five years. After that, the bones can be removed to a general ossuary. The cemetery does not have to be within the commune, and authorities have established six cemeteries outside the city where most Parisians are buried.

Pierre Larribe of France’s Confederation of Funeral Parlours said Parisian families were often shocked to discover they could not bury loved ones in the capital. “Plots in cemeteries in Paris intra muros are expensive because they are rare. This means concessions in cemeteries inside Paris are sold to those who have money and the poor are sent somewhere else. Now space is so rare even those who can afford it can’t always get a place unless they already have a family tomb. Paris city hall has chosen to overcome this by buying land so inhabitants can be buried outside Paris. This is a political choice and we don’t get involved, but it does lead to criticism that Paris has become elitist and doesn’t want its poor.”

He added: “People are often surprised to learn this, but these things need to be discussed before death. Unfortunately, in France death is still a taboo subject.”

Pénélope Komitès, the deputy mayor in charge of cemeteries, said Paris’s authorities were working on freeing more space but did not have the money to repair the abandoned tombs. She said city hall was seeking new legislation to allow it to take over abandoned graves and resell them as shorter-term concessions.

She denied that the city was pushing the deceased poor to the suburbs. “Not at all. Historically, from the time of Napoleon when there was an increase in the population of Paris and consequently an increase in the number of dead, cemeteries were sited outside the city. Today, if you take the price of burial plots in other cities they are the same.

“We are trying to find ways of ensuring people who are Paris residents can be buried in Paris.”


Kim Willsher Paris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘It’s a miracle’: from begging in Paris to bestselling author
Jean-Marie Roughol reveals how a chance encounter with a former government minister led him to write about living rough – and to turn his life around

Kim Willsher

31, Dec, 2016 @7:55 PM

Article image
Paris warms to Emily as Netflix’s ingenue returns for new series
Roasted by critics for being clichéd and inane, the romcom is due to return with a ‘more mature’ heroine

Kim Willsher in Paris

12, Dec, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
It’s a wrap: Christo’s final art project follows Paris triumph
As the covers come off the Arc de Triomphe, work begins to realise an ambitious project in the desert and secure the artist’s legacy

Kim Willsher in Paris

03, Oct, 2021 @5:45 AM

Article image
A year after the Bataclan, Paris uses art and activism to regain its soul
The city’s response to the 2015 attacks has been a creative rebirth that is open and inclusive

Sophie Hastings

06, Nov, 2016 @12:04 AM

Article image
In a Paris banlieue, coronavirus amplifies years of inequality
Seine-Saint-Denis has long been one of France’s poorest areas, but the pandemic has laid bare social rifts as never before

Kim Willsher and Caroline Harrap in Paris

25, Apr, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Wanted: a cleaner, greener Paris after the coronavirus gloom
The mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is struggling to enthuse her supporters as the capital goes to the polls

Kim Willsher

27, Jun, 2020 @4:12 PM

Article image
Next stop, Nina Simone … Paris metro ‘must honour its heroines’
A public vote to name two Paris stations has turned into a battle over a sexist rail map

Kim Willsher in Paris

17, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘Weird and wonderful’ fans mourn Jim Morrison in Paris, 50 years on
The Doors frontman died on 3 July 1971, but to the pilgrims by his grave, his charisma remains undimmed

Kim Willsher and Caroline Harrap in Paris

03, Jul, 2021 @5:16 PM

Article image
‘It belongs to the people’: new life for British director’s Paris theatre
Napoleon III’s Châtelet reopens after a £28.6m facelift with a stress on innovation

Kim Willsher

08, Sep, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe
The French capital, despite efforts to deal with litter, graffiti and dog mess, is grubbier than ever

Kim Willsher in Paris

22, Sep, 2019 @6:10 AM