Friday, October 26, 2007

Grave circumstances


November is a bit of a morbid month here with three days, including Armistice Day, devoted to remembering the dead. The first, All Saints’ Day – or Toussaint - is a public holiday and, although it sounds nice and holy, it has its roots in pagan mythology. Like Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day was created to supplant the Celtic celebration of samonios (samhain) which marked the end of summer. In the eighth century, Christian monks who had come as missionaries to Gaul found themselves witness to strange rituals and dark goings on at around the beginning of November. People would lay places at the table for deceased relatives and light candles and lanterns to guide the dead souls whom they believed mingled with the living during this time. These practices were so deeply anchored in the rural population that they endured in one form or another even after conversion to Christianity. In fact, in certain parts of France today, people still light lanterns for the dead and in Brittany, they pour milk on the tombs as an offering. I bet it curdles...

In the ninth century, Louis the Pious instituted a feast day for all the saints with the aim of replacing the pagan feast of the dead with a joyous Christian celebration. As usual, the French didn’t take a blind bit of notice and carried on inviting their ancestors to dinner. To cater for this, the Roman Catholic church had to invent a ‘Feast of the Dead’ on the second of November but to this day, most French people choose to remember their ‘disappeared ones’ on the first – probably because it is a holiday.


The day begins for many with mass followed by a family lunch - to which only living relatives are invited - and in the afternoon, everyone goes to the cemetery to put flowers on relatives’ tombs and tidy them up a bit. The traditional flowers are chrysanthemums because – like everything else in the cemetery – they need very little looking after and do not mind the cold. It is the ultimate faux-pas, of course, to offer chrysanthemums to anyone on any other occasion, unless you are trying to drop some sort of grotesque hint.

Cemeteries in France are beautifully kept and many are listed as historical monuments. The idea of cutting through one en route to the shops or nipping in for a sneaky fag on your way home from school would be shocking and incomprehensible to the French. It is important to keep grave plots neat and tidy and woe betide the slatterns who let their epitaphs get dusty – they’ll get a stern dressing down from the town council and more than a few cold stares. Like prisons, cemeteries are surrounded by high walls, the gates are locked at night and there are strict rules to be obeyed: singing or playing music is prohibited except for liturgical chants and military music; you are not allowed to enter if you are drunk or under fourteen and unaccompanied; animals are forbidden except for guide dogs and you are not allowed to take photographs without permission. A quarter of an hour before closing time a siren sounds, loud enough to wake the…well, never mind…and a uniformed keeper walks round to check in case anyone was thinking of spending the night there.


In the village of Mens, 55 kilometres south of Grenoble, you can find private Protestant cemeteries. They were established during the Reformation when Protestants were forbidden by Catholics to bury their dead in 'true Christian' ground. There is also a cemetery divided in two by a low wall: on one side are the Catholic graves - neat and tidy and decorated with photographs and flowers and dinky little statues; on the other side are the Protestant graves - plain, austere and overrun with vegetation...

The most famous French cemetery is Père Lachaise in Paris, established by Napoleon in 1804. This is the place to be buried for any...er... body who is anybody. Chopin is buried here as is the painter Pissarro; Jim Morrison’s grave is regularly besieged by fans and it is traditional for admirers to kiss Oscar Wilde’s tombstone while wearing lipstick. Today there are more than 300,000 people here ‘eating dandelions by the root’ (French for ‘pushing up the daisies’), making Père Lachaise the biggest cemetery in the city of Paris.



Perhaps the most unusual burial place in Paris is les catacombes. These are a network of tunnels and rooms beneath the city in what was once the site of Roman quarries. In 1786, bones from the cemeteries in the centre of the city were moved here as they were presenting a health hazard. There are about 186 miles of tunnels beneath Paris and only a small section is open to the public but of course, that doesn’t stop the cataphiles – catacomb lovers or urban explorers, as they prefer to call themselves - from using the many secret entrances to gain access and hold wild parties amongst the artfully arranged skulls and bones of about six million people. Well…they’re not disturbing anyone, are they?


Another unusual burial site lies beneath the deconsecrated church of Saint Laurent in Grenoble. More than 1,500 tombs have been uncovered that include fifth century mausoleums, seventh century sarcophagi and other tombs dating from the fourth century right through to the eighteenth. The church is now a museum, and you can walk around the crypt on gangways suspended above it and peer into the open stone coffins. Fortunately, they are empty now but I am nevertheless reminded of the words carved on one Frenchman’s headstone: Just leave me to sleep. That's why I'm here…

7 comments:

sablonneuse said...

Another interesting and informative post. I knew about the chysanthemums for Toussaint but hadn't actually realised that they were 'taboo' for any other occasion. Neither had my daughter (I hope) when she bought me some last year because she thought they were pretty!

Roads said...

I'll file this under 'cemeteries with a great view'.

I lift up my eyes to the hills for salvation. That's clearly an understatement in your marvellous landscape, Gigi.

Tinsie said...

Funnily enough, this was one of the most interesting and enjoyable posts I've read - maybe not ever, but certainly this month. WOW! So many things I didn't know.

What a shame about the chysanthemums though. They're so lovely this time of year, too.

Thanks, Gigi :-)

angela said...

It must take you hours to do all the research and how do you manage to find so many topics?
I love french cemetries. They show a real respect for the dead..
Angela

Louise said...

My first November living in France I didn't know about chrystanthemums and Toussaint, and filled the house with them - they were so lovely! Visitors used to arrive and look suitably glum! My ex had a good laugh at my expense for a few days and that is one of the reasons he is my ex!

Gigi said...

sablonneuse: well, I think they're pretty too...and as they're only connected with death in a few European countries, I'd buy a bunch if I were you (just keep them hidden from French visitors to avoid awkward questions!!)

roads: yes, I suppose the view is great. Sadly, I can only lift my eyes up to the hills these days 'cos my legs can't make it!

tinsie: glad you liked it, Tinsie. I love graveyards and of course, my children think I'm mad, but there you go...

angela: I used to write these for a regional magazine in England (Shropshire Life), so most of the posts are just re-edited versions. But yes - it did take me ages to do the research (which was fun and a great way to procrastinate!)

louise: Perhaps you should send a bunch of chrysanthemums to your ex as a sort of philosophical comment on your marriage?

Mountain Dweller said...

This post was dead funny (sorry no pun intended!) The 1st November has always amazed me by its 'ampleur' but if it has roots that date back more century then I suppose it's hardly surprising.