We read on the very fine blog of Janice Sellers, Ancestral Discoveries, that the Pantin cemetery was embarking on a rash of reclamations of plots. We thought we should investigate. We dragged our weary self out to the near end of Line Seven on the Métro and hiked a long, traffic-blasted and gusty avenue to the entry. It looks rather battered but elegant in the photo above. Here is what one truly sees on approaching the entry:
Four or five disembowelled sofas, rubbish bins, and a wide selection of empty beer bottles make for a different sort of depression from that usual to cemetery visits. Cross the threshold, however, and one is transported from grim poverty to grand avenues of beautiful gardens and mature trees. There are more than eight thousand trees, and the air is correspondingly cleaner than out on the road. A very nice place to spend eternity.
The Pantin cemetery is outside of the city of Paris, on the border between Pantin and Bobigny. Administratively, however, it is one of the Paris cemeteries. It is the largest cemetery in France and in Europe. It opened on the 15th of November, 1886, and has over 200,000 graves in 180 divisions, of which many are designated as Jewish divisions. When we asked about the threatened graves, we were told that in no case is an entire division or even a section threatened, but only individual graves. These include Jewish, gentile and other religions among them.
Graves and tombs in France are considered inviolable, except as concerns the bureaucrats, who can do as they please with the dead as well as with the living. The space in cemeteries could once have been bought as concessions à perpétuité, e.g. forever. Descendants merely had to keep up the tombs (they have a tendency to cave in if not maintained, and can be quite dangerous).
The population explosion having effected the cemeteries along with everything else involving humanity, the problem of overcrowded cemeteries has become urgent. In 2002, it was announced that all of the Paris cemeteries were full; there was absolutely no place for anyone to be buried. The press was full of comic headlines saying such things as "Death in Paris is Forbidden".
The solution has been to review the maintenance and condition of all of the graves taken as concessions à perpétuité, and there are reportedly some 1,157,533 in Paris, and reclaim those that have clearly been forgotten. There are rules:
- the grave has to have been abandoned for a minimum of thirty years
- there must be an effort to find the family lasting at least four years
- there must be a public notice that the grave is planned to be reclaimed unless family come forward
- if the family do come forward, they have up to three years to make repairs; if they fail to do so, the bones will be exhumed and sent to the ossuary, as we have explained here previously
As repairs can cost up to 10,000 euros, one can be sympathetic to the families that have let the graves fall into disrepair. Nevertheless, there is a waiting list of dead, we read, though we cannot work out just where they are waiting, and the pressure on the cemetery administrators is intense. Many Jewish families want plots in the Jewish sections, many Muslim families want plots facing Mecca, many Christian families want plots in the Christian sections. Everyone wants plots near to relatives. Consequently, efforts to reclaim space have increased significantly. Hence, the blog post by Ms. Sellers and other notices in the press.
Pantin is run as are the other cemeteries. The summer and winter hours correspond to the hours of daylight. To find a grave, you must have the full name of the deceased and the date of burial or at least that of death. With that information, you can go to the office, just at the entry, and request directions to the grave. The guards wait outside and in a most kind and unParisian way will offer to drive you to the correct section, if you feel it may be too far to walk. The cemetery is so large that cars are permitted, should you wish to take one.
There is no online list of all those buried at Pantin, but Ms. Sellers's post does give a list of the names on those Jewish graves that are at risk of reclamation. If you think that your ancestor may be at Pantin, and you wish to plunk the small fortune to protect his or her grave for a bit longer, you can write to or ring the administration:
Cimetière parisien de Pantin
164, avenue Jean-Jaurès
(+33) 1 40 33 85 89 (general number)
(+33) 1 48 10 81 00 (Pantin office number)