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Père Lachaise cemetery takes its name from the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in the Jesuit house rebuilt in 1682 on the site of the chapel. The property, situated on the hillside from which the king watched skirmishing between the Condé and Turenne during the Fronde, was bought by the city in 1804. Established by Napoleon in this year, the cemetery was laid out by Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart and later extended.

The cemetery was opened on 21 May 1804. The first person buried there was a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a door bell-boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine. Her grave no longer exists as the plot was a temporary concession. Napoleon, who had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate three days earlier, had declared during the Consulate that "Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion".

At the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Moreover, many Roman Catholics refused to have their graves in a place that had not been blessed by the Church. In 1804, the Père Lachaise had contained only 13 graves. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804, with great fanfare, organized the transfer of the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière. The following year there were 44 burials, with 49 in 1806, 62 in 1807 and 833 in 1812.

Then, in another great spectacle in 1817, the purported remains of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil were also transferred to the cemetery with their monument's canopy made from fragments of the abbey of Nogent-sur-Seine (by tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love).

This strategy achieved its desired effect: people began clamouring to be buried among the famous citizens. Records show that, within a few years, Père Lachaise went from containing a few dozen permanent residents to more than 33,000 in 1830. Père Lachaise was expanded five times: in 1824, 1829, 1832, 1842 and 1850. 

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