People often attribute the words ‘Layfayette, we are here’ to General Pershing on his arrival in France during WWI. In fact, the words were spoken by General Stanton in 1917 at the grave of Lafayette during a ceremony honoring his contributions to the American revolution. We had long wanted to visit the tomb of Lafayette and finally managed it this trip. It is not an easy place to find and it has very limited hours, so visitors have to be motivated to manage it. During winter it is usually open between 2 and 4 Tuesday through Sunday. In summer the hours may extend from 2-6. The door is at 35 Rue Picpus (not Picpus Boulevard) and is not entirely easy to spot and is not signed; you do have to know where you are going.
The cemetery is located in a not particularly picturesque part of the 12th arrondissement near many hospitals.
Once through the main gate, you enter a courtyard with a small church and buildings for staff. To enter the cemetery and its park, you need access to the blue gate ahead and to the left; this is obtained from the caretaker who will pop out when you enter and offer you admission and a flyer about the site in English for two Euro. This is a private cemetery and thus not continuously open to the public as are most Parisian cemeteries.
An ordinary church, Notre Dame de la Paix, it is made interesting with the lists of the 1306 people guillotined in the terror of June 1794 and their occupations.
Entering one walks by buildings used by staff and an old house currently used as a parsonage.
Once inside the outer gates there is a large park.
The park is pretty and there are benches where one could sit and read or eat lunch. The stone gate pictured below is left from a chapel that existed here at the time of the revolution. Prayers were said here for those being delivered through the nearby gate to the mass graves.
On the far left wall of the park as you enter, there is an old wooden gate and a rutted track of cobblestone where the wagons brought corpses from the nearby guillotine for burial in mass graves.
Only people who are descendants of those executed in the terror after the French Revolution may be buried here and so while many of these graves date back to the post revolutionary period, there are some very recent burials as well.
We visited in late October and yet the wall to the left as we entered was still covered in colorful vines and roses. It is a pretty little cemetery filled with interesting tombs.
On the wall to the right as you enter the small enclosed cemetery, there are memorial plaques for those entitled to burial here here who were murdered in the holocaust. I always have mixed feelings when I see ‘died for France’ on these memorials since they were delivered up by the French to die.
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was a member of the nobility and married into the noble Noailles family. Like most of the people buried here in 1794, the Noailles fell to the terror. While Lafayettes own family avoided execution most of his inlaws went to the guillotine. Lafayette and his wife were entitled to burial here because of her family’s deaths.
The DAR of Paris maintains the tomb of Lafayette and an American flag is positioned over the gravesite making it easy to find.
Lafayette’s tomb is at the back of the cemetery along the wall. On the other side of this wall is the area where mass graves of those executed by the guillotine in 1794 are laid to rest. On the wall to the left in this picture you can see a memorial to Andre Chenier the poet who was one of those guillotined during June 1794 and who lies in one of the mass graves.
In June of 1794, 16 Carmelite nuns were executed by the Revolution. They were sent to the guillotine for refusing to renounce their vocation and sang Salve Regina as they marched one at a time up the stairs to their death. Poulenc wrote an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on these events which are credited with causing such revulsion that the terror soon came to an end. They along with the other victims of the terror are buried here in mass graves in a gated off area at the end of the cemetery.
The graveled areas mark several mass graves for 1306 people slain in 42 days of terror in 1794. This area is not open to the public and may be viewed through a gate in the wall next to Lafayette’s tomb..
Picpus Cemetery is a set in a lovely park and makes for an interesting Paris excursion. When we visited there was only one other visitor. We definitely recommend it as an interesting way to see a less touristed neighborhood and to touch a little bit of our own history.