France’s highest honour: Five things to know about the Paris Panthéon

France's highest honour: Five things to know about the Paris Panthéon
Photo: Christian Hartmann/AFP
A popular tourist attraction and the highest honour available in France - here's what you need to know about the Panthéon building in Paris.

Built in a neo-classical style, the Panthéon was originally intended to be a church. Construction began in 1758 after it was commissioned by Louis XV and the design was intended to rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Construction took around 40 years and by the time it was finished, the political landscape in France had changed somewhat. The French Revolution began while building work was ongoing and by the time the Panthéon was finished in 1790 Louis XV’s successor Louis XVI was in deep trouble. He would be sent to the guillotine in 1793.

The fate of the new building was surprisingly high up the priority list of the revolutionaries and one of the several new fledging citizen assemblies took a vote on the Panthéon on 1791 and decided to make it a kind of secular church – a mausoleum for the people judged to be France’s most distinguished citizens.

Governments and monarchies have risen and fallen since then, but the Panthéon has remained the place where France’s most valued sons (and a significantly fewer number of daughters) have been laid to rest.

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Here’s a few things to know about it:
1. It can be a verb
The building itself is obviously a noun – le Panthéon – but you will also heard panthéoniser used as a verb. In this context is means that a person will be given the honour of being interred inside the building.


This was evident in news headlines when president Emmanuel Macron announced that US cabaret dancer Josephine Baker would be inducted into the Panthéon.   

2. It’s open to foreigners

While you do need to be a citizen of France to be considered for panthéoniser, you don’t need to have been born a citizen. Josephine Baker was born and brought up in the USA before moving to France, marrying a Frenchman and taking French citizenship. Also inside the Panthéon is Nobel prize winner Marie Curie, who was born in Poland and only became French later.

So being an immigrant is no bar, as long as you achieve something truly outstanding while you are in France.

3. But you can’t book a place in there

Entry to the Panthéon is decided by the country’s ruler, which these days is the president but Napoleon inducted around 40 people during his reign. New members have often been inducted after a public campaign or petition, but the final decision lies with the president of the day.

Some people are buried straight away within the Panthéon, while others have their remains moved there later if their reputation has grown after their death. Josephine Baker died in 1975 and was buried in Monaco, where she was living at the time, but in November 2021 she will be inducted into the Panthéon.

In the case of moving a body, the family’s permission is sought first. If they are not happy with the idea, sometimes soil from a person’s grave is moved to the Panthéon instead while the building also contains several urns that house the hearts of a preferred citizen.

The criteria is simply to be a distinguished French citizen, and occupants include writers, artists, scientists, politicians and campaigners.

The ceremony for the induction of World War I fighter  and writer Maurice Genevoix in 2020. Photo by Francois Mori / POOL / AFP

4. It helps to be male (or married to someone amazing)

Of the 80 people currently interred there, 75 are male. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman and the first black woman.

The first woman to be interred there on her own merit was Marie Curie in 1993, but the first woman to be inducted was Sophie Berthelot. She was married to the distinguished chemist turned politician Marcellin Berthelot, who refused to be buried apart from his wife.   

The other women there are the politician, abortion campaigner and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil and the Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz. Simone Veil’s husband is also buried alongside her.

5. It’s open to visitors

If you’re worried that you’re not fabulous enough to secure a permanent resting spot there, you can always go and visit. The building is beautiful and the permanent exhibition gives a lot of details about the many fascinating characters who are buried there.

Entry is free for children and €11.50 for adults. Due to current health rules, visits must be booked in advance and a health passport will be required to enter. Book here.

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