Where’s Moliére? The Mystery of Père Lachaise

Your final address matters most of all. Not the one where you breathe your last, but the one where your bones rest, where your name is engraved on stone. Of course, the irony is that you’ll no longer be there to care, but the terror of that thought makes the location feel all the more crucial. People who sell plots in cemeteries – the scholar Frederick Brown calls them “metaphysical realtors” – are aware of this anxiety, and often seek to exploit it.

Lately I’ve been reading Brown’s 1973 book, Père Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate. Père Lachaise, of course, is a sprawling village of the dead in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, home to some of the most famous graves in the world – Jim Morrison, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde. Wikipedia says it’s the most-visited cemetery in the world, which is easy to believe. When I visited in February 2010, men half-crazed with cold sold tourist maps outside the entrance (despite the free ones inside) to a steady stream of young art students, couples, and tourists from around the world. I hear that in the spring the place is even more crowded, with both tourists and hundreds of resident cats.

Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise

For the purpose of this blog, Moliére (1622-1673) is my favorite resident of Pére Lachaise. A famed actor and playwright in his day, he had the singularly ironic fate of  going into his death throes while on stage playing the part of an ill man. He’d written the part himself, in a play of called The Unfortunate Invalid. When he fell ill, the audience had no idea Moliére was actually suffering, and thought his twitches were part of the act. He died, of a lung hemorrhage, about an hour after stepping offstage.

In the bad old days, actors were denied a Christian burial. Fortunately, Moliére’s resourceful widow pulled some strings, and got permission for a night burial in the cemetery of St. Joseph. Details of the precise burial location are sketchy: some say he was buried in a consecrated grave “at the foot of the cross,” others that he ended up in a corner of the graveyard set aside for suicides. Sources are even more divided about what happened in the years that followed: some say he was moved inside the church, others that his body stayed out in the yard.

What we know for certain is in 1792, the revolutionary government decided to name a section of town after Moliere, and went in search of his bones. By that time, no knew for certain where he lay. That didn’t seem to bother the commissioners in charge of his exhumation, who dug in what seemed to be promising spot and labeled the resulting skeleton “Moliere.” Afterward, the bones went to a museum, where they lay for about 18 years, until the man behind Pére Lachaise needed a corpse to be part of the founder’s circle.

Like PR people today, the promoter behind Pére Lachaise, Prefect of the Seine Nicolas Frochot, knew that the presence of celebrities would enhance the desirability of his product. He had a job on his hands convincing Parisians to bury their departed in the eastern suburb where Pére Lachaise lay. They were used to burying their dead in city churchyards, and the idea of a far-flung cemetery seemed a little weird. Because Moliere was so beloved, reburying him in Pére Lachaise seemed like an ideal way to convince the French bourgeoisie that the cemetery was the “in” place to spend eternity. Of course, Frochot had no idea the bones may well have belonged to a pauper or suicide, but he may not have cared. In Père Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate, Brown says,

“…judging from their haste, one may presume that they cared no more whether these were the real bits of Moliére and La Fontaine than did the Church whether its saints’ relics were historically true. Myths suffice when any bones will do, and any bones, in turn, will serve a myth–in this case a myth still current in France, which has it that her writers, forming a national treasure, mystically belong to her bourgeoisie, however dull and ill-read.”

The move paid off. Today, many of the tourists who pass Moliere’s grave probably don’t know who he is. They’re on their way to throw flowers at Jim Morrison, or plant a lipstick kiss on Oscar Wilde’s grave. But if it weren’t for the bones of the fake Moliere, they might not be there at all, and the Parisian tourist industry would definitely suffer.

Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise

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