by Erika Mailman
I’m not sure when it first dawned on me to wonder what happened to the corpses of all the people guillotined during the French Revolution. It seemed unlikely authorities would permit families to take the bodies home for a burial ritual…so where’d they go?
I started googling and learned a partial answer: there are two mass graves at Picpus Cemetery in Paris. The nuns at the associated chapel have carried on a perpetual prayer for over 200 years for the victims of the Terror. There’s even a historical celebrity buried there: the Marquis de Lafayette. His wife’s family was guillotined while he was helping Americans with our own revolution.
Not far from Picpus is the Place de la Nation, where the guillotine stood. Carriages brought the bodies from there to Picpus under cover of night.
In 2006, I went to Paris and, among other things (sewer museum, anyone?), went to visit Picpus. I was alone and relying on instructions from a somewhat unclear website. I ended up taking the wrong exit out of the Métro and wandering around aimlessly. I stopped and asked a few people where the “cemetiére de Picpus” was, but no one seemed to know. It’s in a very residential area, so this surprised me. The people I saw were just out doing their marketing. Somehow the double mass grave in their neighborhood had escaped their notice.
I finally found my way there and entered a very quiet space. Gravel walkways lead to the visually unassuming place where 1,300 people lie headless, massed together.
It is said that we only know of these pit graves because of the bravery of a little girl. Her father and brother had been guillotined. When the carts took their bodies away, she followed. We know nothing of her mother and are just left with the sad visual of an orphan who didn’t know what else to do except stay with the bodies. That story further darkened an already overcast day. I went into the chapel (it dates only to 1814 and replaces a convent on the grounds which actually predated the Revolution) and paid my respects.
A large plaque in the chapel lists all the names of the people in the pits outside. The plaque was also my first introduction to the fact that the revolutionaries renamed months and years, repudiating all that came before them. Lobster Thermidor? It is named for the eleventh month of their calendar (which doesn’t correspond to our eleventh month: more like mid-July, says one source).
At the time I visited Picpus, I was under the impression that the heads were elsewhere. Subsequent research unearthed the information that the heads were separately clumped in red barrels at the time of execution and the barrels were also emptied into the pits. An X-ray would reveal a chaotic mishmash of bodies and heads. Sad and disturbing.
There are more tales to be told about Picpus, like the Carmelite nuns who sang together in line for the scaffold until one by one their lives were extinguished. Imagine being the last woman singing. The crowd’s ferocity and bloodthirsty glee was at such a level that if I think too hard about it, it takes my breath away.
(Loren’s note: Erika will be joining me and Dana Fredsti at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco on Sunday, October 29 at 6:30 PM for a special Women in Horror edition of SFinSF.)
Erika also recommends Lynn Carthage’s novel Betrayed, in which characters visit Picpus in the present day—and then timeslip to the French Revolution when it was an active burial site.
Photo of Erika by Petra Hoette.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am starting up the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submission guidelines are here.