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.
In January 1988, I stood in Red Square with thirty American college students watching Lenin’s Honor Guard change.
The replacement soldiers exited the Kremlin gate and moved parallel to the Kremlin wall. The duo marched in long wool military coats, black boots goose stepping. But what seemed inconceivable was the position of their rifles: gripped in the left palm, with a steady aim at heaven. With boots tocking across the stone, the pair relieved the guards on duty to keep the watch.
Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin’s mausoleum is a squat ziggurat constructed from black stone and red marble. He died in 1924 at the age of 53 and was embalmed shortly thereafter. Thousands have visited the Bolshevik leader to pay their respects. A few days after watching the guards, we returned to see Lenin ourselves.
One of our professors, a Hungarian, told us the rumor that the only “original” pieces on Lenin’s body were the head and hands, preserved, while the rest had been buried or burned. It sounded grisly. Since we were in our late teens and early twenties, such things only excited our curiosity. Giggling as we piled off the tour bus, we filled the air with American smiles, hard currency, Marlboros, and Levi’s. Our bright Gore-Tex jackets added confettied splashes to the solemn scene.
The line for the presentation of the dead wound down—a black ribbon—from the mausoleum. We joined the queue in the Alexander Garden.
The garden, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, was built long before the Bolshevik Revolution to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The garden later became a pivotal scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita. The story, set in the 1930s, follows the havoc created by the Devil and his minions in Moscow. Interwoven with the Devil’s arc is the story of Pontius Pilate and the trial and execution of Jesus. It is in Alexander Garden that the Devil’s demonic assassin, Azazello, meets Margarita and pulls her from Communist reality to the supernatural (Christian) sphere. Bulgakov’s writings and plays were banned by Communist censorship. He died in 1940. Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1966.
How ironic that our pilgrimage to the mausoleum started in the same garden created by a Tsar and the location where a demon from Christian mythology takes a Soviet woman to Satan’s Ball. Lenin, a devout atheist, despised religion and firmly believed in Karl Marx’s assertion that it was opium for the people. Standing there in January, the same month that Lenin died, I watched St. Basil’s draw nearer as the line moved toward the mausoleum’s entrance.
Our professor admonished us to enter two-by-two, to be respectful, and for God’s sake, to be silent. It was bitter cold. For all the people in line, it was exceptionally quiet.
The girl walking with me wore a beret reminiscent of the one that Prince sang about in 1985. Not quite raspberry, its lavender sequins glittered atop her golden curls. My partner and I settled into a respectful demeanor until the student behind us cracked some juvenile joke. We snickered, at got hissed at by the professors and the older, more mature students, and tried to compose ourselves again.
As I stood in front of the oppressive architecture, I began to panic. My thoughts raced. Lenin died at 53. When I entered the mausoleum, he had been embalmed for 64 years. How decayed would the body be? Would it be evident that the head and hands had been severed from the body? How far would the labyrinth would go until I could leave? I felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the room would be brimming with lilies. I hated that rich funereal smell.
The line kept moving. There was no time to prepare. I entered and Lenin was right there. The line moved continuously with no time for genuflection, no real time to study the body. There was only the red and black stone, the shuffle of boots on the floor, and the body.
They call it lying in state. Glass walls enclosed a dias. The coffin looked more like a canopied bed with the body angled so his head raised a little higher. Great ruffled black satin, looking almost Victorian, draped over his legs and spilled toward the floor. The canopy top was a replica of the mausoleum’s ziggurat design, but made of wood. He wore a black suit. His hands rested near his waist, one clenched in a fist, the other open, palm down.
His face looked as though he were sleeping, more waxen than the freshly dead. His hair and goatee were exactly the same as the black and white images in our history books, but the tinge of copper surprised me. Lashes rested against his skin; face calm, serene.
There was no time to look closer, to stand in awe. The line kept pushing me forward. As I serpentined around his feet and back up the other side of his body, I caught the faces of the Russians in front of me observing his supine form; their dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. I turned back for one last glance. So much power, so much fire in his rhetoric to spawn a world power to be reckoned with. Suddenly, I was back outside, breathing the refreshing January air that moments ago had seemed so bitterly cold. Spilling into Red Square, our voices were subdued, including the joker behind me.
It wasn’t until I began writing my essay that I looked online for more information regarding Lenin’s mausoleum. You can easily find images of his body online, both from inside the mausoleum and during the embalming process. I have to admit that seeing the graphic images him disrobed have cheapened my memory. The frail, naked body with the great gash doesn’t seem to honor that moment in time, Soviet power and Soviet history as perceived by an outsider. There was so much mystery to Moscow and the Communists.
Here are some interesting facts I discovered while writing this:
Turns out that the body is Lenin’s without his organs and brain. The brain is preserved elsewhere. The corpse is frequently re-embalmed to keep discoloration from the skin.
Lenin’s body was removed from Moscow to protect it during WWII and then returned later.
Stalin’s body was also on display next to Lenin’s until it was removed when the Soviet Union began the de-Stalinalization process.
In 1993, Yeltsin removed the Honor Guard from Lenin’s tomb, but it remains today at the eternal flame honoring the military dead near the mausoleum. You can find youtube videos featuring the guards.
The embalming process is top secret and other heads of state from other countries have been embalmed by the Moscow team.
Recently, a Russian movement has urged the government to have Lenin buried.
Perhaps Lenin, being an atheist, wouldn’t mind his body being handled by scientists honing their embalming skills with images available online for any curious eyes. Perhaps science is the truest end for the man who started the greatest revolution by promising power, not heavenly rewards, to the people.
Melodie Bolt writes poetry and contemporary fantasy & dark fiction. She earned an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Portland, Oregon and an MA in Composition & Rhetoric from University of Michigan Flint. Her poetry has appeared in magazines like TOTU, Verse Wisconsin, and Yellow Medicine Review. Her fiction has been recently published in the anthologies Incarceration (Wolfsinger Publications, 2017), Hoofbeats: Flying with Magical Horses (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), and the magazine Witches&Pagans #31,2015). She is currently working on a dark fiction novel set in Flint, Michigan. Melodie has been a member of the Flint Area Writers for over a decade and frequently contributes to the blog at www.flintareawriters.org . You can also find more of her work here.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am jump-starting 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 submissions guidelines are here.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.