I picked this up because I kept seeing it referenced in the bibliographies of books on cemetery history. The Space of Death is heavy of the theory of cemeteries. Chapters are called “The Vegetal Setting of Death” and “Functionalism and Death,” but for the most part, it isn’t a dry textbook. I’m not sure if that can be attributed to the author or the translator.
Because it was originally written in French, French cemeteries and their places in French history predominate. Which is fascinating, if you’re curious about the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents or Pere Lachaise. It went over the French Revolution and the cycles of execution in such detail that I skipped ahead.
Still, if you have the patience for it, the book is full of material I’ve read nowhere else. For instance, early Christians were buried nude inside their winding sheets. Churchmen were the first to be buried in their clothes “…no doubt believing it to be more decent.” (Did I mention the author’s sense of humor?) In the 17th and 18th centuries, monuments in churches ceased to be three dimensional and instead backed against the wall, forcing viewers to stand and look at them from the front, like theater tableaux. Before 1920, rural villages of France had only three approved subjects for public art: the fountain, the crucifix, and the virgin. Only after World War I did memorials to the dead become acceptable.
Overall, this remarkable book was very worth tracking down. I got my copy of ebay, but it’s also for sale on Amazon.
Photo of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix by LPLT, Wikimedia Commons
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.
The grave of the Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, photographed by Tangopaso.
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.
Normandy American Cemetery
Also known as the Omaha Beach Cemetery and Cimetière Américain de Normandie
14710, Colleville-sur-Mer, France Dedicated: 1956 Size: 172.5 acres (70 hectares) Number of interments: 9387 Open: Except on December 25 and January 1, the cemetery is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm from April 15 to September 15, and from 9 am to 5 pm the rest of the year. Admission closes 15 minutes before closing time. The cemetery is open on holidays in France. When it is open, staff members in the visitor center can answer questions or escort relatives to grave and memorial sites.
The most-visited American military cemetery outside the US stands above a stretch of beach south of the English Channel on the northern coast of France. More than 9,000 men and four women are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery under row upon row of white crosses and Stars of David.
On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — American soldiers joined Allied Forces for the liberation of France. 2499 Americans fell before the Allies chased the Germans from heavily fortified Omaha Beach.
Two days after the landing, the American dead were buried temporarily in the first American cemetery to be established in Europe in World War II. Called St. Laurent-sur-Mer, the cemetery was a holding place for servicemen until their families could be contacted. Next-of-kin could request repatriation or permanent burial in France. Nearly 60% of the fallen were sent home, while the rest were interred on land donated by France in gratitude for America’s sacrifice.
A half-mile-long access road leads to the Normandy American Cemetery, which covers 172.5 acres on the headlands above the D-Day beaches. The cemetery is the largest US World War II graveyard overseas. Buried there are 9383 men and four women, victims of various battles. 33 pairs of brothers lie side by side. The graves are aligned on a vast green lawn divided by paths.
A $30 million visitor center was dedicated by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 2007, on the 63rd anniversary of D-Day. The visitor center, which serves as the entrance to the cemetery, welcomes approximately a million people each year.
Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
At the heart of the cemetery rises a 22-foot-high bronze nude called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” sculpted by Donald Harcourt De Lue and cast in Italy. The statue is surrounded by gold letters that proclaim, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord.” Behind it stands a semi-circular limestone colonnade that says, “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed.” At each end of the colonnade is a loggia which displays maps of the Battle of Normandy. The loggias are engraved, “In proud remembrance of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices, this memorial has been erected by the United States of America.”
A semicircular garden on the east holds the Walls of the Missing. Its dedication reads: “Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves. This is their memorial. The whole Earth their sepulcher. Comrades in Arms whose Resting Place is Known Only to God.” Of the 1557 names listed, some are now marked with rosettes because they have since been discovered and identified.
Two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons lie here. Theodore Jr. was the president’s eldest son. He fought in both world wars and received the Medal of Honor. In WWII, he served as a general. He was one of the first Americans to come ashore in France. He landed at Utah Beach, two kilometers farther south than they’d planned, but he encouraged his men by saying, “We’ll start the war from right here!” A month after the landing, he died of a heart condition.
His brother Quentin had died in aerial combat during World War I. He had been buried in Chamery Cemetery in the Marne region of France, but he was brought here to lie beside his brother.
The pathway from the cemetery down to the beach was closed in April 2016, due to security concerns. A viewing platform overlooks the battlefield, now a peaceful sandy beach that stretches as far as one can see.
Normandy American Cemetery is the largest overseas World War II graveyard, but the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery from World War I contains the remains of 14,000 Americans.
This clip from Saving Private Ryan was filmed in the Normandy American Cemetery:
Place du Pantheon
75005 Paris, France Telephone: 01 44 32 18 00 Pantheonizations began: 1791 Number of interments: Open: Every day, except January 1, May 1, and December 25 Homepage:http://www.monuments-nationaux.fr
In 451, Attila the Hun threatened the Roman settlement called Lutecia, where Paris now stands. A shepherdess named Genevieve rallied the people to pray for deliverance. When the Huns broke off the siege, Genevieve was proclaimed a savior.
After she died in 502, a small oratory was built over her grave. This was followed in 508 by a church, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, built by Clovis, King of the Franks. Three years later he was buried in it. After his wife (who became Saint Clotilde) joined him there in 545, the church was renamed in honor of Saint Genevieve, who became the patron of Paris.
In times of trouble, Genevieve’s relics were carried through the city streets. In 1754, Louis XV credited Genevieve with helping him recover from a grave illness and funded renovation of the church. Jacques-Germain Soufflot wanted the new church to rival St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London.
Foundation work began in 1757, but the hill below was like swiss cheese, so it needed a lot of shoring up. While the crypt was completed in 1763, the cornerstone wasn’t laid until September the following year.
The church was completed by 1790, when the Marquis de Villette proposed burying Voltaire there so that that nation could honor him. He proposed the idea of making it a secular temple to honor the great men of France by interring their ashes in the underground recesses. In April 1791, the Constituent Assembly placed an inscription on the pediment that translates to “A grateful nation honors its great men.”
With much fuss, Voltaire’s ashes were moved to the newly named Pantheon on July 21, 1791. Rosseau was pantheonized opposite him in October 1794.
Several people were honored with pantheonization, which was then revoked. Mirabeau was the first chosen to be honored, but since his niche wasn’t ready yet, his remains were sent to another church nearby. After he was interred there, it was discovered that he had committed treason against the Republic and he was uninvited. Le Peletier was pantheonized for voting for the death of the king and then being assassinated by a Royalist, but his family claimed his body in 1794. Marat was pantheonized the day Mirabeau was kicked out, but was himself kicked out the following year. After that, it was decided that people needed to be dead at least 10 years before they could be buried in the Pantheon.
Architect Quatremere de Quincy took over the Pantheon in 1791. He decided it needed to look gloomier, more like a mausoleum, so he bricked up all the lower windows. He also destroyed all the religious statuary, replacing it with statues of Liberty and France. Saint Genevieve herself was evicted in August 1792, after the fall of the monarchy.
Early in 1806, the Pantheon once again became a church after an agreement between Napoleon and the Pope. The upstairs returned to Saint Genevieve, but the crypt remained secular. A second entrance was built and 41 people were pantheonized between 1806 and 1815. Fifteen of them were officers, including generals who took part in Napoleon’s victories in Europe. 27 of them were senators.
With the restitution of the monarchy, the king signed the Pantheon back over to the church in its totality in 1816. It was consecrated for the first time in January 1822. Genevieve’s relics were reconstituted somehow.
In 1829, the architect Soufflot was buried in the crypt: the only addition during the reign of Charles X.
The July Revolution of 1830 put Louis-Phillippe on the throne. He closed the Pantheon/St. Genevieve’s church to the public.
In 1851, Foucault installed a pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. (A reconstruction hangs there now, while the original pendulum hangs at the Museum of Arts and Sciences). After Catholic opposition, the experiment was ended in December 1851.
Also that year, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) staged a coup d’etat to reinstate the Empire. He gave the church back to the Catholics, called it a national basilica, reinstalled Genevieve’s reliquary, and added a chapter of canons.
After the Second Empire collapsed in September 1870, the crypt was used to store munitions while the Prussians besieged the city. The Pantheon’s dome was damaged in the fighting. The Paris Commune took over the church in March 1871 and also stored munitions in the crypt. They were driven out by army artillery.
When Victor Hugo died in 1885, he lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe before being inhumed in the Pantheon. No ten-year wait for him. He was joined by Emile Zola in 1908 and Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) was added in 2002.
Other internees in the Pantheon range from statesmen to military heroes to the assassinated President of the Third Republic. The heart of socialist hero, founder of the Third Republic, Leon Gambetta was added in 1920. Scientists include Pierre-Eugene Marcellin Bertheot, a chemist who became Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs, and physicists Paul Langevin and Jean Perrin. Louis Braille, inventor of the most common alphabet for the blind, was added in 1952.
After World War II, an inscription was added upstairs in the church to remember Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, who had served as an aviator and was lost when his plane went down near Corsica.
In 1981, on the day of his investiture, Francois Mitterand laid a single red rose at the graves of Victor Schoelcher, Jean Jaures, and Moulin, who were defenders of Human Rights. Schoelcher had been pantheonized in 1949 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.
Pantheonizations continue to this day. In 1987, Rene Cassin, who’d received the Nobel Prize for Human Rights was added. He was followed in 1988 by Jean Mannet, the founder of the European Community.
The ashes of Pierre and Marie Curie were transferred to the Pantheon in 1995. She was the first woman to be buried there on her own merits.
Pantheonizations continue to this day. Currently, there is a push to add more diversity to those honored.
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