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 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…

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The nights are drawing in and it’s time to gather around the fire and tell spooky tales of ghosts and sprites and other fearsome apparitions. Did you know, for example, that during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, France was overrun with werewolves? In the space of a hundred years, there were thirty thousand trials concerning loups-garous and many of these cases are well-documented. In 1573, in the village of Dole in the Jura region, a certain Gilles Garnier confessed to having murdered and eaten scores of young children and a few years later, a father and son admitted killing and eating several adolescents. In 1603, a thirteen-year old boy called Jean Grenier from Aquitaine was found crouching in the bushes chewing on what turned out to be human flesh. Another werewolf caught red-handed - or pawed in this case - was a creature called Jacques Rollet, who not only admitted to eating human beings but commented on the fact that lawyers had particularly thick skins. Well, we all knew that, didn’t we?

These wolf men all had something in common: they were excessively hairy, their nails were long, sharp and black, their teeth pointed and they scampered around on all fours – at least when there was a full moon. As recently as 1930, a werewolf was thought to prowl the streets of Paris and even today, desperate parents use the threat of a loup-garou under the bed to chasten naughty children.

As far as I know, there have been no cases of loups-garous in this region – although there are plenty of excessively hairy men. There is, however, a history of fairies. Near the thermal resort of Allevard are two caves said to be occupied by fairies and at the height of the resort’s popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, they were a major tourist attraction. However, unmarried women were not allowed to enter as legend had it that a young girl was warned by one of the malevolent fairies that if she did not marry her lover – who had gone to war – in exactly a year’s time to the day...he would die. On the allotted day, the lover preferred to go hunting rather than get hitched and met his death as predicted. The fairy got the blame, of course, rather than the disgruntled bride-to-be…

Closer to Grenoble, the village of Sassenage claims to have been home to the fairy Mélusine. Legend relates how a certain King Elinas met a beautiful young woman, Présine, while out hunting. She agreed to marry him on condition that he never see her give birth. He broke his promise, however, and his wife promptly disappeared with her three daughters. Years later, on learning of their father’s broken promise, the girls took their revenge and imprisoned him. Présine therefore punished her eldest daughter, Mélusine, condemning her to turn into a snake every Saturday and if she married, her husband must never see her as a snake otherwise she would disappear forever. One day, Mélusine met the handsome Raymondin in the forest and agreed to marry him as long as he didn’t try to see her on a Saturday. Strangely enough, he accepted – I suppose he thought she was the sort of woman who like a girls’ night out. Unfortunately, one Saturday, suddenly suspicious and mad with jealousy, Raymondin burst into the bathroom where poor Mélusine was trying to deal as best she could with her scaly skin problem - and discovered her secret. She fled to the caves in Sassenage and was never seen again. The small, spherical stones still found in the mountains around Sassenage were believed to be the fairy Mélusine’s petrified tears.

Other strange stones include those observed by two young girls in 1842 in the village of Clavaux. Stones started falling around them in slow motion so they ran to tell their parents who returned to the place with them. Suddenly, a sort of whirlwind began to suck the two children skywards and their parents had to grab hold of their feet to prevent them from disappearing into the stratosphere like helium balloons.

On a more ghostly note, this region has its White Lady too. On the outskirts of the village of Château-Bernard, some say a hitch-hiker can be seen thumbing a lift at night. All in white, she tends to dissolve like mist into the darkness as you approach her but thirty years ago, a man actually stopped and gave her a lift. Taking a fancy to her, he put his hand on her knee and then groped her breasts at which point he realised that she was – literally – frigid. She suddenly disappeared and feeling guilty, no doubt, the dirty old man stopped at the next police station to report what had happened and discovered that he’d just tried to make out with a ghost. I hope he had nightmares for the rest of his life.

There are countless other mysteries but to be honest, I’m still grappling with the everyday ones, never mind the supernatural. My house does seem to be haunted though…by three young girls who only appear at mealtimes and then mysteriously disappear…mmmm