Montparnasse Cemetery has plenty of famous eternal residents — from Charles Baudelaire to Susan Sontag to Man Ray to Guy de Maupassant — but the real wonder here is the curious monuments that the artistic and elite of Paris have as their memorials.
Montparnasse Cemetery, or Cimetière du Montparnasse, was opened in 1824 on what used to be three farms. You can still see a surviving 17th-century stone windmill (with no blades) in the cemetery’s center. While it’s now empty, during the 18th century it was turned into a tavern and center of an open-air dance hall. The cemetery, along with Père Lachaise and Montmartre, was created to replace the festering, disease-spreading Cimetière des Innocents in the city center where six million people were layered in a reeking burial ground. (These bodies were all relocated to the Catacombs.) Montparnasse Cemetery has now expanded into two sections, with the smaller separated by a road in between the high walls.
Now there are about 35,000 tombs in the cemetery for 300,000 people, with 1,000 more buried each year on the flat grid of the cemetery. There’s Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir buried together in a relatively simple tomb, while you’d think that Serge Gainsbourg had died yesterday from the cascade of flowers drowning his grave. There’s a large mosaic cat that Niki de Saint Phalle made for one of her friends, and gasoline lamp innovator Charles Pigeon sits up in his deathbed to read by the illumination of his invention. The first ace pilot of WWI, Adolphe Pégoud, stands proud above a screaming eagle. The monument for Dr. Jacques Lisfranc de St. Martin is lined with skulls and bones and shows him instructing a lecture hall while examining a severed foot. There are also tombs in the shape of an ibis, a fish, and one startling sculpture where a weeping man hides his face from a woman who reaches to him in farewell from the tomb.