Victims of Revolutions Monument in Tajikistan
Crematorium and Columbarium Complex
Although cremation was widely practiced in the ancient world, it fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity. After all, the resurrection of a body required a body. The Vatican finally lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. Understandably, cremation was slow to gain acceptance in countries with a predominantly Christian population, but France was one of the counties that paved the way to broader acceptance of cremation. In the early 1800s there was talk of legalizing cremation and a bill was introduced, but it never got out of the proverbial committee. To be sure, cremation had been practiced now and then out of social necessity, such as 4,000 corpses that were burned after the battle of Paris in 1814. And Pere-Lachaise had operated an inconspicuous incinerator to dispose of medical waste and the bodies of paupers from almost the establishment of the cemetery. Finally, in the early 1880s a concerted effort was launched to legalize cremation in France. Although the idea was at first rejected by the government, a series of cholera epidemics convinced officials that cremating infected bodies to prevent contagion might not be such a bad idea. Previously, on August 14, 1874, the City Council adopted a resolution to take steps to open a contest with a duration of six months, in order to find the best practical method of incineration of bodies or any other system leading to a similar result. The process actually took 10 years and, ultimately, on July 25, 1885 the Council of Hygiene of the Department of the Seine gave permission to construct a crematory at Pere-Lachaise. The crematory was initially intended to be used to dispose of unclaimed bodies from hospitals, but within a couple years the Senate ratified a bill that made it legal for an individual or the person’s family to request cremation. On January 30, 1889 the crematory was used for the first whole body voluntary cremation, the 11-year-old son of a Dr. Jacoby. There were another 48 voluntary cremations in 1889 in addition to 749 unclaimed hospital corpses and embryos. The crematory has rarely seen an idle day since.
Architecturally the crematory falls under the umbrella of neo-Byzantine. It was designed by architect
Jean-Camille Formige (1845-1926) and constructed from 1887 to 1888. The crematory and columbarium complex is composed of essentially 4 elements: the crematory, the chapel, the subterranean columbarium under the crematory and the multi-arched arcade and courtyard surrounding the crematory. Architect Jean-Camille Formige is buried in Passy Cemetery.
There are dozens of notable Parisians and thousands of not-so-notables residing in the columbarium underneath the chapel and in the arcade. Most of the niche-fronts are fairly plain, but there are some that display an abundance of creativity. The canvas may be small but the statement made can be large indeed. None is more touching than the two hands almost toughing, trying to unite in eternity. Among the notables are opera singer Maria Callas, whose ashes were later scattered in the Aegean Sea after her urn was stolen and later found, artist Max Ernst, musician Stephane Grappelli and African American writer Richard Wright. By far the most visited niche in the arcade columbarium is Isadora Duncan’s.