Tag Archives: French cemeteries

Cemetery of the Week #124: the Cemetery of Marigot on Saint Martin

Palm trees and sailboat masks from the cemetery. Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

Palm trees and sailboat masks from the cemetery. Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

The Cemetery of Marigot on Saint Martin
aka Cimetiere de Marigot-Saint Martin
Boulevard de France
Saint Martin Island
GPS coordinates: 18°3’54″N 63°5’18″W

Marigot, capital of the island of Saint Martin, has been called “the most French in spirit of all the cities of the Caribbean.” A steady influx of cruise ships supports everything from cafes to luxury boutiques, including Chanel and Lacoste.

The first people came to Saint Martin around 1800 BCE, when they arrived from South America. They left behind stone tools. Another wave of immigration happened after 500 BCE when more people arrived in 60-person canoes. Their presence was marked by polished stone tools, worked shells, painted pottery, and tombs. A replica of one stands in the city’s museum.

Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

Life on the island remained pretty sedate until the French arrived in the 1760s. They built plantations and imported African slaves to grow sugar cane, which they exported back to Europe and the Americas. They also fermented the cane juice into rum.

Chevalier Jean de Durat, governor of the island and Saint Barths, oversaw the construction of Fort Louis (or Fort St. Louis, sources disagree) above Marigot Bay in 1767. The plans for the fort had been sent from the court of Louis XVI at Versailles. The fort was meant to defend the island’s warehouses full of salt, coffee, sugar cane, and run.

In 1772, de Durat married the heiress to the plantation of Saint Jean. Although he died in 1814, his children and grandchildren continued to run the plantation until slavery was abolished in 1848. Even after that, sugar production continued on the land until 1860, when the plantation was abandoned. The ruins still stand along the main road from Marigot toward Philipsburg.

Photo of grave decorations by Kathleen Rhoads.

Photo of grave decorations by Kathleen Rhoads.

The Dutch occupied Fort Louis temporarily after the slave revolts on Guadeloupe in 1789. After the French regained the fort, the English attacked from their base on Antigua to loot the warehouses on a regular basis throughout the 19th century.

Martinique-born Francois-August Perrinon is Marigot’s most famous resident. As a shareholder in a company that produced salt from Saint Martin’s swamps, he experimented with paying slaves. He discovered, unsurprisingly, that slaves who were free — and paid — worked harder than those who were mistreated. He joined Victor Schoelcher’s Commission in Paris that lobbied to abolish slavery. Schoelcher announced the abolition of slavery throughout the French Colonies on April 27, 1848.

Afterward, Perrinon retired to Saint Martin to resume his salt harvesting. He died in 1861. His tomb still stands in the Marigot Cemetery.

These days, the cemetery stands between the bay and the marina. Grave plots are often surrounded by a poured concrete curb. Some are completely covered with slabs of imported granite or with ceramic tile. Epitaphs tend to be in French. Decorations range from ceramic or silk flowers to conch shells to hearts outlined with small stones.

Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

Photo by Kathleen Rhoads.

Lately, dengue fever and chikungunya fever have grown to epidemics on Saint Martin. Wear long sleeves and pants or use DEET-based bug repellent when exploring the cemetery, where water might be standing in vases, giving a home to the mosquitoes who carry the disease.

Useful links:

Some history of the town of Marigot

Information on amenities in Marigot

A map to the cemetery

Center for Infectious Disease Research story on dengue fever and chikungunya


Cemetery of the Week #93: Montparnasse Cemetery

The Pigeon family monument, Montparnasse Cemetery

The Pigeon family monument, Montparnasse Cemetery

Cimetière du Montparnasse
aka Montparnasse Cemetery
3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet
Paris, France 75014
Telephone: +33 1 44 10 86 50
Founded: July 25, 1824
Size: 47 acres
Number of interments: more than 300,000 people in more than 35,000 tombs
Open: From March 16 to November 15: Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and holidays: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In the winter, from November 6 to March 15: Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays and holidays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Map: You can request one from any of the guardhouses at the gates or download it here: http://www.pariscemeteries.com/pdf/Plan-sepultures-Montparnasse.pdf

The Mairie de Paris organizes guided tours. For information, call 01 40 33 85 85.

The second municipal cemetery in Paris might be considered a poor sister to larger and grander Pere Lachaise, except that Montparnasse Cemetery is so full of intriguing and beautiful sculpture. Its flat, tree-shaded paths are pleasant to walk in any weather, but now that spring is coming and birds will fill the trees, it will be particularly lovely.

Montparnasse was recognized as an historic monument as early as November 2, 1931. It serves as the final resting place of Guy de Maupassant, whose short story “The Horla” scarred me as a child; composers César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, whose Danse Macabre you can hum, and Jean-Paul Sartre, author of No Exit, alongside his companion Simone de Beauvoir, whose book The Second Sex pioneered feminist theory.

Among the joys of Montparnasse are the two life-sized lions snarling atop one grave. A cloaked woman hunches over another monument, her face buried in her hands. Elsewhere, a crusader in armor, draped in a floor-length marble cape, keeps watch. Perched atop a mound of stone clouds, an angel sounds his trumpet directly into another grave. Nearby, a marker bears a deep relief of a shrouded woman, laid out of her bier, clutching her limp infant even in death. On yet another, a nude woman stands in relief, balancing a five-pointed star overhead as she poses before the pyramids of Egypt. A skeletal Death, clutching his scythe, lounges at her feet. By far the strangest monument is a rotund man-sized cat, painted with Op-Art flowers like something out of Yellow Submarine.

A gauze-wrapped corpse lay on the ground beneath one of the cemetery’s wall. Above it, a brooding bust protrudes from a marble slab. When I visited, a single red rosebud, its end wrapped in tinfoil, lay atop the marble corpse. This is the cenotaph in memory of Charles Baudelaire, the author of Les Fleur du Mal. (A cenotaph is a monument to honor a person whose remains lie elsewhere.)

Elsewhere in Montparnasse lies the grave Baudelaire shares with his mother and stepfather. That gravestone’s inscription makes no mention of Baudelaire’s worth as a poet. He died in Paris on August 31, 1867 of syphilis. His mother, who nursed him at the end, said he died with a smile on his lips. That seems unlikely.

Closeup of the Pigeon family monument

Closeup of the Pigeon family monument

Also in Montparnasse stands one of my all-time favorite grave monuments: a life-sized four-poster bed. On the bed lay a man and a woman sculpted in bronze. She sleeps beneath the covers, fully dressed in Victorian finery, complete with a veil. Half out of bed, he wears a coat and tie, boots, and clutches a book in one hand.

Useful links:
A brief history of the area, in English

A whole lot of photographs of monuments in Montparnasse

All the famous French people in Montparnasse

A great video compilation of all Montparnasse’s lovely monuments

Other Parisian cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #10: Pere Lachaise

Cemetery of the Week #19: the Paris Catacombs

Cemetery of the Week #20: Napoleon’s Tomb

The Exquisite Mourners of John the Fearless

San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the current home of 37 exquisite tomb sculptures on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. I had the joy of visiting them recently.

The image above shows my favorite of the mourning sculptures, but it implies that the figures are large, perhaps even life-size.  In reality, they stand about 16 inches high.  At first I thought this diminished their power, but on closer examination, that was certainly not the case.

The figures, all men, display every nuance of grief, from throwing their heads back in pain to drying their eyes on their cloaks.  Some still wear the enamel which once adorned them all, but most have lost their paint.  The alabaster retains — in crisp relief — every curl of hair, every fold of fabric, every vein that crawls the back of a miniature hand.  Many of the figures carry books, sometimes turning to them for solace, other times bearing them as burdens.  The books, like the men, vary in many wonderful details.

The figures come from the tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages.  His domain stretched from Dijon in central France into Luxembourg, Belgium, and even the Netherlands.  He was also a patron of the arts, drawing sculptors, writers, musicians, and other artists to his court.

Before John died in 1419, he commissioned a tomb for himself and his wife to stand in the family’s monastic charterhouse outside of Dijon.  Life-sized effigies of John and Margaret rested on a slab of black marble.  Below that slab stood an ornate Gothic arcade through which the mourning figures marched in procession.  They were carved between 1443 and 1456 or 1457.

While echoing the relief carvings of mourning figures on classical sarcophagi, these figures were unusual because of their three-dimensionality.  They mourned John through the centuries until the tomb was dismantled during the French Revolution.  Eventually the tomb was moved to the former ducal palace, now the Fine Arts Museum of Dijon.

While that museum undergoes renovation, the Mourners are touring the US.  After the exhibition closes in San Francisco, it travels to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and then to Paris, before returning home.

You really should see the Mourners in person, but if that’s out of the question, the exhibition guide contains photos of each figure from several angles so you the sense of moving around them.  Once they return to Dijon, you will no longer be able to get so close or see them as well as you can now.

The exhibition guide is available from Amazon: The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy

You can find information on the exhibit and get tickets for the Legion of Honor here.

Cemetery of the Week #27: the Old Market Square in Rouen

The garden where Jehanne’s pyre stood

Place du Vieux Marché
Rouen, France 76000
Telephone: 00 33 (0)2 32 08 32 40
Date of Joan’s martyrdom: May 30, 1431
Number of interments: 0
Open: The market square is free to visitors. The church is open April through October on Monday to Thursday and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m. On Fridays and Sundays, the church is only open from 2 to 6 p.m. In November to March, it closes at 5:30 p.m.

Whether Jehanne d’Arc actually commanded the armies of France against the British in the 15th century or merely served as a figurehead who rallied the French to victory, it’s undisputed that she was betrayed when the walled city of Compiegne shut their portcullis, leaving her to face the army of John of Luxembourg.  Six months later, she was ransomed to Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, who took her to Rouen where he presided over her trial for heresy.

Jehanne was 19 when she was tried by French clergymen in the pay of the English.  She had been wounded at least three times in battle and once while attempting escape from prison.  She could not read and could barely write her name, but she outwitted the judges ranges against her.

After her captors threatened her with torture, she repudiated the voices which had predicted her victories and ultimate downfall.  It seemed they might not find a transgression worthy of death, so her guards stole her dresses, forcing her to wear men’s clothing once more.  The court quickly found her guilty of heresy (for cross-dressing) and sentenced her to death.

Jehanne was burned at a stake in Rouen’s Market Square.  When the fire seemed to be dying, the executioner added more wood and poured oil over it, burning her bones until nothing but ashes remained.  Those were gathered up and flung into the Seine so there would be no relic, no grave that could serve to rally the French against the English.

In the end, no relic was needed.  In 1453, the English were finally driven out of France.  Charles VII took possession of the records of Jehanne’s trial and opened the way for her pardon.

Not much remains in Rouen from May 1431.  Much did not survive the centuries; more was destroyed by fire during World War II.  A cross stands in the old market square near a little garden, which marks the place where Jehanne was martyred.  A church in her name was completed nearby in 1979.

It doesn’t matter that Joan of Arc has no grave.  A steady stream of pilgrims and tourists visits the place where the girl was burned to death.  They are as reverent as if they visited a cemetery.

Links of note:

Catholic Encyclopedia listing on Joan of Arc

Tour of the Old Market Square

The Church of St. Joan of Arc

The opening of The Passion of St. Joan of Arc, which has a script from the transcript of Joan’s trial, with a soundtrack by Anonymous 4:

Other Rouen gravesites on Cemetery Travel:

Richard the Lion-Hearted

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

The Aître Saint Maclou

The Atrium of Saint Maclou
186 Rue Martainville, 76000 Rouen, France
Telephone: 02 32 08 13 90
Established: 1348
Number of interments: none any longer
Open:  Daily. April – October from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Between November and March, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission: Free.

Aître Saint Maclou is tricky to find, in that the sign is up overhead. You walk through a passage between buildings to reach the atrium.

The sign is over your head.

Rouen, on the River Seine, is the historical capital city of Normandy in northwestern France. Once one of the biggest, wealthiest cities of medieval Europe, Rouen served as a capital of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of France from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

When the Black Plague struck Rouen in 1348, it wiped out three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants. To accommodate the dead, a new cemetery was built near the Church of Saint Maclou. Without regard to social standings, all bodies were dumped into the mass grave.

For centuries, Christian philosophy taught that the soul was fundamental and the body mere dross, to be discarded. Simultaneously, the Church preached bodily resurrection. When the trumpet sounded on the final day, all the dead around the world would rise out of their graves to be judged. Bodiless spirits would not rise. Therefore, bones could not be cremated or otherwise destroyed. They had to be buried, preferably in hallowed ground. They could not later be discarded.

Once Rouen recovered from the Black Death, shops and homes surrounded the little cemetery. Many of these half-timbered medieval buildings still survive in the area.

The Plague returned in the 16th century. All the bones remaining in the Atrium of Saint Maclou were exhumed and placed into a cloister surrounding the cemetery, so that the ground could be reused to bury the new dead. This time, two-thirds of the surrounding parish succumbed to the Black Death.

Spades, mattocks, and coffins decorate the buildings. The weathered figures below perform the Dance of Death.

The cloisters, begun in 1526, were decorated with skulls and grave-digging implements, including spades, mattocks, and coffins. A fourth building was added to the cloister in 1651 to be a charity school for boys, even though the cemetery was still in use. These buildings were taken over by the regional Fine Arts school in the 1940s.

The cemetery itself was closed by royal decree in 1781. The area became a designated historical monument in 1862. Today the lovely, macabre courtyard remains as the only medieval ossuary still in existence in a European city center. Tour groups in every possible language often disrupt the atrium’s peace, but despite that, it is a breathtaking, thought-provoking little space.  Every city in Europe once had a space like this — and this is the only one left.

Useful Links:

French wikipedia page

Satellite photo

Travelers’ reviews

Other Rouen gravesites on Cemetery Travel:

Richard the Lion-Hearted

Joan of Arc