A stone’s throw from the constant flow of tourists from the Place du Trocadéro and the Palais de Chaillot down to the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, there is a wonderful little space of seclusion and peace: the Passy Cemetery. Although it is small, this cemetery is a well-tended oasis in the city, full of interesting personalities from the city’s history.
The Passy Cemetery was created in 1820 as one of the new cemeteries built just outside the city limits of the time, like Père-Lachaise (1804), Montparnasse (1824), and Montmartre (1825). It has 2,600 tombs, making it Paris’s seventh-biggest cemetery.
The architecture of the tombs is extremely varied and sometimes remarkably exuberant. Much of it is marked by a sort of Second Empire sensibility, but there are also examples of straightforward neoclassicism. Overall the sculpture is not particularly distinguished, but there are pieces by Zadkine and Landowski.
The Passy Cemetery contains a very high concentration of tombs of illustrious Parisians. These range from one of the earlier occupants, the Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon I to Saint Helena and wrote the extraordinarily influential Mémorial de Saint-Hélène, to the popular volcanologist Haroun Tazieff, buried here in 1998. It is also the resting place of one French president, Alexandre Millerand, who held the office from 1920 to 1924.
Hector Lefuel, the architect who took the construction of the expanded Louvre complex over from Louis Visconti in 1853 and went on to work in the Tuileries for Empress Eugénie and build hôtels particuliers for Achille Fould and Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, was buried here in 1880. He has a small funerary pavilion with a bust and an engraved tribute. It is only fitting that he should have such a tomb, as he himself designed funerary monuments for Daniel Auber and François Bazin at the Père-Lachaise.
Three years later, in 1883, Edouard Manet, who died of gangrene at the age of only 51, was buried here in the presence of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Émile Zola, among others. Manet, of course, had been the young man in a hurry to shake up French painting in the Second Empire years who produced Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia. In 1895 he was joined in the calm of Passy by sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot, the great impressionist painter known for her sensitive rendering of domestic scenes as much as for her incisive beauty captured by Manet in his paintings.
In the section to the left of the main path, in the area furthest away from the Place du Trocadéro, lies one of the great undervalued figures of French literature, Octave Mirbeau, buried here in 1917. Mirbeau was one of the most prominent French writers of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a close friend of Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin, and someone who never backed away from tackling highly controversial subjects, from the rape of adolescents by members of the clergy to the Dreyfus affair. Despite the effusive praise he received from intellectuals of the stature of Leo Tolstoy and Stéphane Mallarmé, he is all too little-known today.
A bit further back one finds the tombs of two great innovators in the history of music who were buried here shortly after Mirbeau: Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. Although Fauré died second, in 1924, he was the older of the two. He had worked initially as a church organist before having his own compositions performed and assuming a leading role in French music, both as a composer and as an educator. Debussy had come up through the conventional path of a Prix de Rome laureate, but was in his artistic search anything but conventional, creating among many other things the opera Pelléas et Mélisande and numerous pieces for piano. He had a tremendous influence on the great composers of the twentieth century. Debussy died of cancer and was first buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in war-time, before being moved to Passy one year later, according to his own wishes.
The part of the cemetery closest to the Place du Trocadéro, overlooking the square, is the final resting place for two illustrious Frenchmen who died in 1944. Jean Giraudoux was a writer remembered for his extremely successful plays and novels of the years between the world wars, and notably of La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu of 1937, which dealt, topically enough, with the combat between the impulses toward war and peace and with the descent into conflict. Nearby is Georges Mandel, a former Minister of the Interior who may well have been the man to lead France in the post-World War II period had he not been captured, deported to Buchenwald, and finally killed by the French militia outside Paris, one of the great tragedies of French history.
Nearby is the tomb of Tristan Bernard, who became famous in the much lighter vein of clever literary entertainment. He excelled in witticisms, for example, speaking during the Occupation of the Germans: “In 1914 we said we’d get them, and now we have them.” But the life of Bernard, who was also Jewish, ended in tragedy. Rounded up for deportation, he was freed at the insistence of key figures of the French entertainment world. But he had to watch as his grand-son was sent to Mathausen, never to return. Bernard never recovered from his grief. He died in 1947.
Americans may be interested to know that one of the tombs belongs to Pearl White, a silent film star famous for her extremely athletic role as the heroine of the series The Perils of Pauline in the 1910s. White moved to Passy in the 1920s, and died there in 1938. Betty Hutton played her in the 1947 film, The Perils of Pauline.
The Passy Cemetery is not only a wonderful space, away from the boisterous city life. It also carries the memory of great and terrible periods of Parisian and French history. The likes of Mirbeau, Manet, Morisot, Fauré and Debussy remind us of great moments in French culture and the artistic life in Paris of the Belle Époque. Giraudoux, Mandel and Bernard evoke the inter-war years, the trials of occupation and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Like the city it is in, the Passy Cemetery is the messy overlay of all these ambitions and achievements, of the iniquity and betrayals, the greatness and the baseness of which the history of France is made.