Manhunt in Père Lachaise

A ramble through a Parisian cemetery in search of a bizarre legend helped me understand the meaning of “soulmates”

Photo: © Claire Splan

In the biting cold of a March afternoon, I roamed among the tombs in Père Lachaise Cemetery, looking for a man. A dead man, actually. A man of legend, by the name of Victor Noir. Of all the manhunts that I had ever been on, this was certainly the strangest.

His name is just one of the dozens listed on the roll call of famous and supposedly famous dearly departed who are entombed at this massive 118-acre city of the dead on Paris’ east side. Père Lachaise is a necrotic Who’s Who, boasting such notables as Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, Isadora Duncan, and Jim Morrison. Although it is often described as a “garden cemetery,” it has a decidedly urban feel to it, like a city within a city. Still, it draws tourists and natives alike who come to walk, picnic, rendezvous, or simply star-search.

“When I feel myself flagging, I go and cheer myself up in Père Lachaise,” wrote Honoré de Balzac. “While seeking out the dead I see nothing but the living.”

After scribbling a short list of the names and lot numbers of the graves I most wanted to see, I set off on the tree-lined stone path down the Rue du Repos. Street by street and lot by lot, I began tracking down the tombs that held some of the greatest, or most creative, or most tragic figures of modern times. And although my search did feel a bit like a macabre treasure hunt, I knew that each crypt marked not just the remains but also the story of a life — perhaps even a pair or entire family of lives.

There is the story of Abélard and Héloïse, the medieval lovers whose romance withstood both separation and castration. Their chaste but cozy tomb depicts them laid out side by side, seemingly in prayer. And the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose simple gravestone bears Gertrude’s name on the front, with Alice, ever the good and deferring wife, discreetly memorialized on the back. And the story of Oscar Wilde, whose overwhelming art deco monument has become a popular place for posting love letters and poetry. Père Lachaise, it seems, is as overrun with stories as it is with feral cats. Both are lurking behind each granite slab, just at the periphery of your view, never fully revealing themselves.

So, who is Victor Noir? On the list of notable graves posted inside the gates of the cemetery, the sign reads “Victor Noir, French Journalist.” What he is notable for, however, is not his writing, but his death itself. Noir was shot dead for publicly criticizing Napoleon’s cousin, Prince Pierre-Napoléon Bonaparte. His death stirred the masses who were already unhappy with the Second Empire. A hundred thousand people attended Noir’s funeral on January 12, 1870, and the seeds of a revolution that would eventually lead to the fall of Napoleon III were planted.

In the year following Noir’s death, known as l’année terrible, the Communards, a rebellious association of Marxists, Jacobins, egalitarians, and anticlerics, made their stand against the government — a stand that ironically came full circle to end at Père Lachaise. On May 26th the embattled Communards were cornered within the cemetery and the last several hundred of them were shot dead along the eastern wall. They were buried where they fell and a dozen years later the wall — the Mur des Fédérés — was established as a shrine to the rebels.

But I wasn’t there to pay homage to a revolutionary. I was in search of a legend. There’s no telling how the idea started but according to lore, anyone who touches the tomb of Victor Noir will be married within a year. Just one touch and — voilà! Marriage!

I am a superstitious traveler. In Rome, I threw fistfuls of coins into the Trevi Fountain. In Mexico City, I lit candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I make wishes, leave offerings, pay homage to the powers that be — even those I don’t believe in. I do it with a tourist’s amusement and a cynic’s secret desire to be proven wrong. So naturally, I could not let the legend of Victor Noir go unchallenged.

For such a soulful place, Père Lachaise was born some two hundred years ago of a rather unromantic problem: Paris reeked. By the turn of the 19th century, the city had a half million residents and more corpses than it could contain. After the overflow of bodies from the Cimetière des Innocents burst through the wall of an adjacent apartment house, it was clear that something needed to be done. The city’s sanitation was deplorable and fear of disease from the rotting bodies was running high. The old cemeteries were closed and bodies were transferred into abandoned quarries-turned-catacombs while new cemeteries were being established on the outskirts of the city.

In an unfashionable area of the north-eastern corner of Paris, an old hill known as Champs l’Evêque had been occupied by the Jesuits since the 17th century. The property served as a hospice for the order and the residence of the confessor to Louis XIV, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise — Père La Chaise, as he was commonly known.

In 1763, under the rule of the less-reverent Louis XV, the Jesuits were evicted. The property was purchased by the family of Baron Desfontaines in 1771, who then sold it to the city of Paris in a deal arranged by the urban planner Nicolas Frochot in 1803.

Frochot had big plans for this run-down patch of land. He hired Alexandre Brongniart, the popular architect who also designed Paris’ Stock Exchange, to lay out the grounds. The new cemetery, originally known as the Cimetière de l’Est, opened in 1804 in the same week Napoleon was crowned emperor. Frochot then set out to attract the upper classes of Paris society to the site by arranging to have the remains of notable personalities such as Molière, La Fontaine, and Abélard and Héloïse entombed there.

Before long, burial at Père Lachaise had become the ultimate status symbol, a place of rest that only the wealthiest could afford. “To be buried in Père Lachaise is like having mahogany furniture,” Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables. Even James Baron, the previous owner of the land, had to pay several times the amount he received for the entire property just for a small burial plot.

But even wealth cannot necessarily buy eternal rest at Père Lachaise. The cemetery has had an unusual policy of leasing plots rather than selling them, so there is no guarantee that once buried, you’ll be able to stay put. There was talk of ousting the remains of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, when his 30-year lease expired. Cemetery officials do not appreciate the graffiti and detritus left behind by the thousands of rock ’n’ roll pilgrims who come to visit his popular gravesite, and to deter further vandalism they removed Morrison’s name and lot number from the signs throughout the cemetery. It does not discourage his fans, however. They simply wander and inquire until they find him. The only person who stopped to speak to me the entire afternoon was a young Swedish man who asked in perfect English, “Do you know where Jim Morrison is?”

There is a danger in Père Lachaise of being lulled into a museum-goer’s trance. The sculptures and the quiet peacefulness of the place can cause you to forget where you really are, to see the names on the stones without thinking of the human lives they represent. But in a far corner of the cemetery, the wrenching memorials to the French resistance fighters and concentration camp victims reminded me, and the smoke spewing from the crematorium made it painfully clear. These were real lives, real loves, tragically lost and respectfully remembered.

The deeper I wandered into this crowded community of tombstones, the more I was touched, not by the celebrity crypts, but by the elaborately sentimental remembrances of ordinary people. The mother’s grave marked by a full-length alabaster sculpture of a woman in bed nursing her baby. The doctor’s grave where a ghostly granite maiden sadly writes his epitaph. The gentleman’s grave that also memorializes the man’s best friend — his dog, Lick.

All these someones laid to rest with their someones. Husbands and wives. Friends and lovers. Companions and, ultimately, soulmates. In the midst of such a congregation, a tired legend can still coax forth a whisper of hope. So, the legend of Victor Noir lured me on.

By late afternoon I had crossed off every name on my short list — except for Victor’s. In the lot where he was supposed to be buried, I walked up and down each row, scanning name after faded name. When I was almost ready to give up, I found him at last, in the front row, facing out onto a cobblestoned path. Even among the thousands of spectacular monuments, his would have been hard to miss.

On a horizontal platform, a bronze, life-size figure of a man was stretched out, depicted as he must have fallen when shot dead. He wore a long dress coat and boots and his top hat lay at his side, just beyond his fingertips. A verdigris patina covered the figure, although the tops of his boots were shiny, worn clean, apparently, by the optimistic caresses of the pilgrims who came before me.

The grave of Victor Noir. Photo: © Claire Splan

I was reminded of another part of the legend mentioned in my guidebook. Men and women who are hoping for a baby are urged to rub a particular part of Victor’s anatomy. Potential mothers and fathers must have paid heed, for his crotch glistened in the afternoon sun.

Standing at his feet, I felt suddenly shy and awkwardly aware of the many eyes of passersby and countless cats who might be watching, ready to witness my moment of supreme foolishness — or supreme faith. I hesitated. But Victor’s arms were open wide, seeming to beg me to set aside my doubts.

I glanced both ways to make sure no one was looking, then I quickly reached down to touch the tip of his left boot. My palm met the smooth, polished metal, resting for just an instant before I pulled back.

One year, Victor. You’ve got one year.

Postscript: Some years have passed since I visited Père Lachaise and I must report that I remain unmarried. I leave it to the reader to consider whether that is Victor Noir’s failing or my own.

Nevertheless, the legend of Victor Noir endures, so much so that in 2004 cemetery officials, disturbed by the amount of polishing that his crotch had experienced, erected a fence around his tomb and posted a sign that reads, “Any damage caused by graffiti or indecent rubbing will be prosecuted.”

This essay originally appeared in Rosebud.

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