Hidden in the shadow of the awe-inspiring domes of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, there’s a piece of Montmartre history which is so secretive that even many Parisians don’t know of its existence. Cimetière du Calvaire (Calvaire Cemetery) is not only the smallest cemetery in Paris, but it’s also the oldest… And it’s only open for one day a year!
Wander past the wrought-iron gate of Calvaire Cemetery on any given day and it will be firmly shut. Situated to the right-hand side of the eight-hundred-year-old Saint Pierre de Montmartre Parish Church, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spy the heavy bronze doors depicting the Resurrection sculpted by Italian Tommaso Gismondi, whose work is also to be found in the Vatican.
Wait in the queue (and be sure to bring an umbrella in case of rain, as always seems to happen on Toussaint!) and you’ll soon be ushered into the space and up some cracked steps. Perhaps what will surprise you the most is the state of the cemetery; there’s no paved pathway, and many of the tombs are cracked and worn, to the point where many are now illegible.
Address | 2, rue du Mont-Cenis, Montmartre, 75018
A history of Cimetière du Calvaire
For such a small space (around 600m²), the graveyard is the final resting place of a surprising number of figures who were instrumental in the foundation of the USA, as well as, of course, history prior to the French Revolution. For example, the man who created Moulin de la Galette, one of the last windmills of Paris, is now interred in the cemetery, his tomb easy to spot thanks to its crowning feature, a mini moulin!
The cemetery was founded as early as 1688 on the site of the Montmartre Abbey. Once used to bury religious members of the church, at its opening the cemetery was the only cemetery available to residents of Montmartre. Even prior to this, the site is thought to have been used as a Merovingian burial ground during the 7th-century. History buffs should note that it wasn’t until the 19th-century when the district was absorbed into the fabric of Paris.
Unfortunately, both the Abbey and its adjoining cemetery were badly damaged during the French Revolution. Many famous tombs were destroyed during this period, including that of Pigalle. During this period, no burials took place, and interments only resumed in 1801.
This second opening of the cemetery was not to last and Cimetière du Calvaire was closed for once and all in 1823 with the opening of the larger Cimetière Saint-Vincent. Editor’s note: During my research, I saw many sites list 1831 as the date when the cemetery closed, but the official Mairie de Paris guide lists 1823.
Even today, the cemetery remains a pretty elusive space; though family members are allowed to visit their loved ones’ graves throughout the year, normally they choose to visit on the 1st of November owing to the difficulty in accessing the keys etc. Now, the only way to be interred in the Cimetière du Calvaire is if your ancestors are buried there.
People of note buried in Montmartre’s Calvaire Cemetery
In total, there are 85 distinctive burial plots. While some are where French soldiers who died during the Battle of Paris of 1814 are interred, the majority of burials are from the most prominent Montmartre families from Montmartre d’en bas (what is now the 9th arrondissement). As previously noted, the cemetery was in use for several centuries, and not all plots are marked so the exact number of burials is unknown.
Debray Family: This famous Montmartre family are best known for their milling empire, including the creation of Moulin de la Galette, one of only two windmills to survive in the arrondissement to this day. The family tomb is marked by a windmill monument and is plot 32.
Felix Desportes: At the age of just 27 years old, Desportes became the first mayor of the area of Montmartre. The year was 1790 and his tomb can be found at plot number 43.
Louis Antoine de Bougainville: I’m sure you’ve heard of Bougainville before even if you didn’t know of his existence before today. After all, the Bougainvillaea flower is named for this 18th/ 19th-century French explorer. Though most of his body lies in the Paris Pantheon, Bougainville’s heart is buried in the Cimetière du Calvaire.
D’Artagnan (not interred in the cemetery): Remember that man from the Three Musketeers novel by Dumas? Well, D’Artagnan was a real person and he died during a Siege of Maastricht in the Netherlands in the 17th-century. Prior to what many rumours might say he is not buried in the cemetery and is likely buried in Maastricht.
How to visit Cimetière du Calvaire
Unfortunately, Paris’ most forgotten burial place is also one of the hardest to visit. Though Montmartre’s main cemetery is open throughout the year and is easily accessible, that of Calvaire is open for just one day per year, Toussaint (All Saint’s Day).
The 1st of November is always a public holiday in France, meaning that most establishments such as restaurants, cafés, and shops close up for the day (though larger brands such as Galeries Lafayette and many supermarkets remain open, albeit with often limited hours).
Traditionally, All Saint’s Day is when the French visit their loved ones in cemeteries across the country. The Calvaire Cemetery is no exception, though visitors should note that the cemetery is closed in cases of high winds or particularly bad weather. You see, people are interred under the entirety of the space, even if only 85 tombs remain in situ to this day. As a result, the ground is incredibly fragile, and particularly so when it rains.
The Cemetery is open from 9:30 AM to 5 PM on the 1st of November. And while entry is free, you can only visit by guided tour (and only then, in French). Nevertheless, tours take place every fifteen minutes throughout the day, with the last tour half an hour before closing time.
Our tour lasted around twenty minutes and was incredibly informative thanks to our experienced guide! When inside, you have to stay with your guide, though you’re free to snap as many photos as you like. Furthermore, as the Calvaire Cemetery is pretty unknown, I only waited around twenty minutes before our group was allowed to enter inside this secretive space.