Since the medieval period, France has served as an influential economic and cultural powerhouse, so it is no surprise that the country draws famous figures from around the world, many of whom are eventually buried here.
Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris offers walking tours and maps of the graves of famous people, but memorials for other high-profile people buried in France are a little harder to find.
American Gertrude Stein was an important literary figure who spent much of her life in France. She is best known for organising artistic salons which would draw together figures like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, F Scott Fitzgerald and Henri Matisse. Stein is credited as fostering the cultural melting pot that made Paris such an engine of creativity in the 20th century.
She was also a writer in her own right. Stein died aged 72 in 1946 and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Henry II was the King of England from 1133-1189 and also controlled large swathes of northern and western France.
During his reign, he set the foundations of what would later become English Common Law. Henry II was married to Eleanor d’Aquitaine but had many children out of wedlock and was recently described by the Rest is History podcast as a “massive lad”. He was best known for ordering the killing of Archbishop Thomas Beckett who had threatened him with excommunication.
Henry II was born in France and spent much of his life here supervising his huge realm. He collapsed after a disastrous battle and was buried in Fontevraud Abbey, which is in between Tours and Angers.
Richard the Lionheart
Henry’s third son, Richard I, went on to become Richard the Lionheart of England. He was killed by a crossbow while fighting in France (the crossbowman was later flayed alive and hung). His body was laid to rest alongside his mother and father at Fontevraud Abbey while his heart was placed in a tomb in Rouen cathedral.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate renaissance man. A scientist, inventor, artist and engineer, he is widely considered a genius.
Da Vinci spent most of his life in what is now Italy, where he was born, but moved to France at the invitation of the king for three years up until his death from a probable stroke in 1519. He is buried in the chapel of Saint-Hubert near the entrance of the Château d’Amboise, in the Loire valley.
Another giant of the art world, Pablo Picasso is most famous for his Guernica painting which captured the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish painter lived much of his life in France and was based in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Picasso died in 1973 and was interred in the Château of Vauvenargues in Aix-en-Provence – a property he owned.
Philip Astley is widely considered as the father of the modern circus.
Born in 1742, this Englishman integrated clowns, animals and acrobats into his shows and became so famous that Louis XV of France invited him to perform at the Palace of Versailles. In 1782, Astley created the first ever purpose-built circus in France – a place known as the Cirque Anglais in Paris – which was later destroyed in a fire. Suffering badly from gout, he died in 1814 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Celebrated Irish writer Samuel Beckett is best known for his absurdist style. Born in Dublin, he studied languages at university and moved to Paris where he held several academic posts. His most famous work, Waiting for Godot, was originally written in French.
Beckett died of emphysema in 1989 and was buried with his wife in Paris’ Montparnasse cemetery. When asked what kind of gravestone he wanted, Beckett reportedly replied “any colour, so long as it is grey”.
Susan Sontag was a prominent American 20th century intellectual, philosopher, writer and critic. She died in New York aged 71 but was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris – a city where she had studied at the Sorbonne.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was born in what is now Italy in the 13th century and is known as one of the most important christian thinkers of all time. He spent much of his life developing philosophical arguments for the existence of God and remains highly influential today. He died in 1274 and is buried in the Jacobins Convent in Toulouse.
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, MP economist and early proponent of utilitarianism – a moral belief that says actions leading to happiness are right and those leading to suffering are wrong. He believed that actions should be guided by what should brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. Mill died in 1873 and is buried in the Saint-Véran cemetery in Avignon.
Best known as the lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison died in in Paris in 1971, aged 27. The official cause of his death was heart failure but no autopsy was performed and some eyewitnesses at the time suggested that Morrison had suffered a heroin overdose.
The iconic American frontman is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery where is grave remains a place of pilgrimage for fans.
French-American dancer, singer, actress and rights activist Josephine Baker became the first black woman to be inducted into France’s Pantheon mausoleum of revered historical figures in November 2021, nearly half a century after her death.
Nicknamed the “Black Venus”, Baker took Paris by storm with her exuberant dance performances in the 1920s and 30s, capturing the energy of the Jazz Age. She worked for the French resistance during the war and after the war campaigned for Civil Rights.
She is buried in Monaco, where she was living for the last years of her life, and her family opted against having her body moved to the Panthéon, but visitors can pay homage to her memorial in the Paris mausoleum.
The brilliant Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. The Importance of Being Earnest is among his most famous works, dealing with hidden identities and oppressive Victorian society. Wilde was prosecuted under English anti-gay laws and served two years in prison in London.
After his release – shunned by English society – he moved to France where he remained until his death from meningitis in 1900. Wilde was initially buried in the the Bagneux cemetery outside Paris but his body was moved to Père Lachaise in 1909. The latter tomb was engraved with an angel, complete with male genitalia, which was censored by French authorities with a golden leaf. A glass barrier now surrounds the tomb, which has to be regularly cleaned of all the lipstick marks left on it over the years.
Vincent van Gogh
One of the most famous painters in Western art history, the Dutch Vincent van Gogh died a poor man in France from suicide in 1890, at the age of just 37.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was only after his death that his works began to sell at prices that would have lifted the post-impressionist from poverty. Van Gogh’s body is buried in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise, a little to the northwest of Paris. His last words were reportedly “the sadness will last forever”.
Wildred Owen, one of the most famous poets of World War I, was tragically killed crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in northern France just one week before the Armistice in 1918.
He is buried in the Ors cemetery in northern France, where his tombstone is engraved with a line from one of his poems: “Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul”.
William Webb-Ellis is the man who, according to legend, who created the game of rugby. As a student of Rugby school in the early 20th century, he was thought to have picked up the ball during a football game and run the length of the pitch with it. Most historians discount this story as a myth but the Webb-Ellis Cup remains the name of the trophy given the the winners of the Rugby World Cup every four years.
Webb-Ellis died in the south of France in 1872, having travelled there in an attempt to cure his TB, and is buried in le cimetière du vieux château in Menton, Alpes-Maritimes.