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October 2009


Autumn colours at Pére Lachaise

We were asked to photograph the tomb of a specific person -- a baron, no less --  at Père-Lachaise, Paris's cemetery to the east, the famous one. On a slightly grey day, we hopped on the 69 bus and headed out that way.

The cemetery was created in 1804 and was not popular until some famous people buried in other parts of Paris - Molière, Abélard and Héloise, Lafontaine - were dug up and moved there. This seems to have inspired people who thought they'd like to spend eternity next to those fine folks, and Père-Lachaise became hugely la mode for the dead. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be buried there. With the incredible crowding in of some million burials, of which there are 70,000 graves today, it does seem as if everyone who ever died in Paris is buried there.

The tourists go there to find the graves of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Seurat, Modigliani, Pissarro, Corot, Chopin, Wilde, Balzac, Hugo, Colette, politicians, war heroes, scientists, academics, and more. (The link above lists just about every celebrity.) The locals use the place as a park for the many trees make for cleaner air than in much of the rest of Paris. The genealogist goes there to try to tie up loose ends in family research. There is no denying that it is very beautiful and also very crowded.


Crowded 3 

To find a grave at Père-Lachaise, one follows the same procedure as described in the post about the Montparnasse Cemetery: go during business hours on a weekday. Have with you the full name and date of burial or at least date of death of the person. Without that, no one will speak to you. We had our information, and even a copy of the death registration, when we went to the Bureau de Conservation. A charming lady looked at us suspiciously, as they had done at Montparnasse, wary that we would waste their time. 

We presented our information on the grave we sought, but our heart sank when the name turned out to be not on the computer's database. The administrator asked us to wait while she would check the paper records, for the grave was from the early 19th century and the very early non-celebrity graves were not in the system. She was gone for quite a while, long enough for us to memorize the map of the cemetery, it seemed. The wait was worth it, for she returned with a copy of the map clearly marked. 

"Go up the hill, turn left, turn right, count 11 graves down, then count 18 graves diagonally. It will be marked with this number."  We thanked her profusely and left to climb the hill. (The cemetery is on a steep hill and the paving stones really are slippery so avoid going on a rainy day.) The directions seemed clear enough, we thought, as we followed the signs, until we came to where we had to count graves. One might as well try to count a path through a giant jar of jelly beans. There was no order and there was no space between the jumble of graves. It was very hard not to tread upon them. Dark trees heavily dripped and magpies swooped. Just as despair was growing stronger than determination, we came upon the grave we were hunting! It is madness, but the system works.

In principle, one can write to the cemetery administration for the location of any grave. However, be prepared to wait. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the reply. Here is the address:

Direction des Parcs et Jardins et Espaces Verts

Service des cimetières

70-71, rue des Rondeaux

75020 Paris


Absolutely everyone advises against trying to get the information by phone, so we will not even give the number. There is another address, that of the bureau inside the cemetery, which will not respond to any postal queries. Use only the address above.

Père-Lachaise is located on blvd. de Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement.

Métro Père-Lachaise brings you to the side entry, closest to the bureau.

Métro Philippe Auguste brings you to the main entrance.

Métro Gambetta brings you to the entrance at the top of the hill so that you can do the tour downhill all the way.


©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Law on Archives and Genealogists



A reader has written and asked us to comment on last year's change in the law on archives. The law is number 2008-696 of the 15th of July 2008. What interests genealogists most is that it reduces the length of time that actes --  civil registrations --  are closed to researchers. In the past, no civil registration could be viewed by any but the person named or government officials until it was more than 100 years old. This included all birth, marriage and death registrations. (Actes de naissances, de mariages, et de décès

According to a July, 2009 letter of clarification written by M. Daniel Barnier of the Ministère de l'Intérieur, de l'Outre-Mer et des Collectives Territoriales to M. Michel Sementery, the President of the French Federation of Genealogy, the law now states that death registrations may be seen 25 years after the date of death.  For birth and marriage registrations, access is to be permitted when the acte or the most recent document in the dossier has reached 75 years, or if the 25 year limit on death registrations for the subject of the actes has all ready been reached, whichever is shorter.

The problem has been that many town halls, or Mairies, are refusing to follow the new law. We have not heard if there is any movement behind this, or any rationale other than small town stick-in-the-mudism, but there may be some sort of bureaucrats' conspiracy. Only last week, we received a letter from a village Mairie in the département of Nord saying in bold that all registrations had to be more than 100 years old before researchers could see them.  

The Ministry writes in its letter that a circular to be sent to all Mairies is being prepared by the Director of French Archives. Heaven knows when that circular will go out, and when every Mairie will decide to follow it. In the mean time, the letter has been copied to every genealogical society in France with the recommendation that, if there is a problem, it be shown to the difficult bureaucrat.  We attach it below for all of our readers to be able to do the same.

Download Archives law letter



Bonne chance!


©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


N.B. Our dear friend, who lived in Italy for many years, tells us that the image above is disturbing and is very reminiscent of the art appreciated by the fascists. It comes from the murals of the Ancien musée des colonies. We find the outlandish musculature to be hilarious and humour is our only reason for using the image. Please note that we are not a fascist and have no fascist leanings.

Paris Hospital Archives

After a long and frustrating day at CARAN, when the normally very efficient microfilm room seemed to fall to pieces, we wandered a few streets to the east to investigate the

Archives de l'Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris,    

(the archives of the public hospitals of Paris.)  Our arthritic pins were weary and we were daunted by the entry:


Entry to Archives de AP Hopitaux de Paris

Still, we made the climb for we have been researching a family some of whose members died during an epidemic of influenza (la grippe) that swept Paris in 1889, and we hoped to be able to find out more, possibly even some patient records. The reading room was tiny:

Reading room in Archives des Hopitaux

but what a  treasure this place is! The collection began in the 17th century as the archives of the Hôtel-Dieu, a most ancient charitable hospital in front of Notre Dame, was then burned with the Hôtel de Ville in 1871, and was begun again with a massive hauling off of all archives from all public hospital administration offices in 1905. It has been in its current location since 1941, as the stairwell above surely proves.

The collection contains:

  • what could be reconstructed from the burned archives, which went back to the 13th century;
  • hospital administration records from the 19th century onwards;
  • a collection of photos of hospitals, doctors and patients beginning in the 19th century;
  • a library, of which more below;
  • and, what is of most interest to genealogists, medical archives, including patients' files, from the 18th century (unfortunately, not for the hospital we were seeking).

Small and simple, it is nevertheless a facility both easy to understand and to use. Binders contain lists of what is available from each hospital, whether as paper or microfilm. Comfortable chairs and tables with good lighting are provided for the researcher (see above).

Best of all, we thought, was the little library, especially its unique and excellent collection of 18th and 19th century books on the disturbing problem of enfants abandonnés (abandoned children). Information and statistics about such children is now scattered across all twenty arrondissements and various government offices. This little collection of books surely has to be one of the best resources for statistics and cases on a national level. For anyone researching the subject, please note.

Books on children

Access to the library is free. As always, one completes a form, shows identification, must lock all belongings in the locker provided, and use only pencil to take notes. A library card is issued and the wonderfully knowledgeable and competent librarian is ready to assist.


Archives de l'Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris

7 rue des Minimes

75003 Paris

telephone: (+ 33) 1 40 27 50 77

fax: (+33) 1 40 27 50 74

hours: Monday to Friday, 9.00 to 17.30



métro: Chemin-Vert or Bastille




©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Paris Family History Center



The Paris Family History Center is a five minute walk from the Archives de Paris and thus, very convenient., when all goes well. It is a much needed service for the reason that none of the archive facilities in the entire capital offer the service of microfilm exchange with other Archives Départementales. This microfilm exchange service is what allows researchers to see the états civils of another départment without having to go there. If those états civils are not yet online, this exchange between the Departmental Archives is the only possible way researchers have of accessing the records. It is astonishing that this service is not available in the largest city in the country.

In its modest way, the Family History Center fills this gap. Users order their microfilms from other parts of France via the FamilySearch website in the United States. The films are sent from either Utah or Frankfurt, Germany and generally take about four months to arrive. They remain available for three months.

We received a telephone call that our films had arrived and booked a time to view them. The first time available was a day the following week at nine in the morning. We arrived on time and saw that another user was waiting outside the locked doors. An hour later, we were still waiting. We gave up and crossed the way to do some work at the Archives de Paris. Returning a couple of hours later, we found the facility open and full. The reason it had been closed earlier was that each of the two volunteers thought she was the one on holiday. We were told that we would have to come back the following week as we had missed our time (when the door was locked). A bit annoyed, we booked a new appointment.

Returning the following week, we took our microfilm rolls to one of the three readers. It did not work. We tried another. It could focus only if we held the glass with both hands. The third was being used by a lady who moaned and swore in frustration so we suspect it was not in good condition either. The Center's volunteer tried to repair the one that was entirely non-functional but said repeatedly that she had never used it. 

In all, this was not a happy experience, sad to say, for the staff are earnest and well-intentioned. It serves very well to point up the lacuna in archives services in Paris concerning loans between the Archives Départementales

Paris Family History Center

64, rue de Romainville

75019 Paris

telephone: 01 42 45 29 29 

Métro: Porte des Lilas


Basic information on Family History Centers

©2009 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

What Happens to a Grave?

Montparnasse tombstone


Paris once had cemeteries on every corner, rather the way London once had pubs, but when with the ever increasing population this became a health hazard, Paris at least changed things. In the mid-nineteenth century, most of the inner city cemeteries stopped receiving new graves, and all burials were sent to newer cemeteries outside the centre of the city. Among the few that continue to operate within the city are Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmartre, and the cemetery in the 16th arrondissement. They now serve not only as cemeteries but as precious inner-city green spaces (no pique-nique allowed, obviously).

Recently, we were attempting to find the grave of a man who died in 1889. Our research had revealed that he was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery, a vast area of over 45 acres in the 14th arrondissement. We had the division number, the section number, and the grave number. However, only the divisions, which hold hundreds of graves, are marked. Undaunted, we wandered the entire division, taking all of a golden, autumn, Saturday afternoon, certain to find our man. Of course we couldn't. 

Tourists strolled by, looking for the many graves of the famous. There were grand tombs with sculpture, a couple with crazy cartoon pieces, plenty of marble slabs, many old, barely legible stones, and some that were broken, illegible, had red-striped tape across them, and the ominous notice that if no one came forward to pay for its repair and upkeep the grave would be emptied and the plot resold. Montparnasse Cemetery has had, according to the official website, over 350,000 burials in its almost 200 years of existence. The website boasts that it currently has 35,000 graves. Um, what happened to the other ninety per cent, we wondered?

The following Monday, when the bureau would be open, we returned to ask about our man. He was a poor fellow, who surely would not have been able to afford a grand tombstone. Most of his relatives seemed to have left Paris, so it was unlikely that anyone had been around to care for his grave. We feared the worst, but asked anyway. A substantial matron was at the desk and at first groaned at our request to know exactly where, among the 35,000, his little grave might be. Relieved that we had the man's full name and date of death, she smiled and went away to look in the files. She warned us, however, that the cemetery administration keeps no information about the people buried or their family or who paid for the plot originally.

Indeed, his grave was one of the ones that, after 112 years and due notice on the part of the cemetery administration, was no more. "It was in ruins, the stones were broken," the matron informed us, somewhat defensively, we thought. We asked her what was done with the remains. She told us that they had been removed respectfully and the plot resold. 

To where had the remains been respectfully removed? To Père Lachaise, on the eastern side of Paris. We asked if there might not be a marker or a list, of those remains deposited in the ossuary. "Vous rigolez ou quoi?"she said, exasperated with my questioning.  ("Are you joking, or what?") And then our matron made a gesture of one arm sweeping downward under the other that gave a clear, silent indication of a chute into the underworld. 


©2009, Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Identity Wars - Part One



This is the beginning of a long and highly personal story that will take some time and many installments to tell. It will also take my having a bit more courage about discussing the personal in this blog and a bit more control, as relates to this story, of my krakatoan rage.

It is my story and I take it very seriously, though almost every person who knows it scoffs at it and at my intensity about it. I choose to tell it here because it has to do with identity and so, with genealogical research, for it touches on changed identity, altered documents, new documents, legal action about documentation and identity, immigration, emigration, and the ways at least five countries (and counting) prefer to document and strive to control an individual's identity. It began over thirty years ago and it is not over yet.

It began on my twenty-third birthday, when I was taking a candle-lit bath alone in the empty house of a heroin addict as a blizzard roared and howled outside. The storm was a big one and filled the Tahoe basin, the winds reeling and slamming against the granite mountains like a great lion that had only ever known freedom  suddenly trapped in a cage. The house was just pine and shook with each wind blast and creaked at its joints. The power was out. The heroin addict, his stunning, ex-model wife and beautiful boy whose nanny I was were at their friend's house, trapped until the storm might let up. I lay in the bath exulting in nature's force and waited for the house to cave in on me. 

While I waited, I thought that, in case I survived, I should like to change my name. It would be a sort of birthday present to myself: a new name. I thought I'd like to have a surname all my own, something no one else on the planet would have. I considered changing my first name, but it was too much a part of me, even if Anne is one of the most common women's names in the west, and that irritates me still. I briefly considered giving myself a middle name and correcting one of my parents' many negligences, but decided it would be a waste of effort unless I were going to insist that people use it. No, I wanted to change my last name only, but to what? Not to the name of my mother's father or to the name of a poet or author. I was a bit of a feminist and rejected all of those on the grounds that they were all men's names and indicated descent from and membership in a certain tribe, like the name I all ready had. No, I wanted something all my own.

What did I choose? Well, it was not as wacky as that of an acquaintance who changed her name to "Eternal Love-and-Unity". I grew up in the mountains and I loved the mountains, but "Anne Mountain" did not please me at all. It was not euphonious. Nor did I like the sound of the Chinese word from the author of the Cold Mountain Poems, Han Shan, for that would have made me "Anne Shan", which would just lead people to think me Chinese and then be disappointed to find me not so. I kept thinking about it as the wind carried on ranting and the candles burned lower. 

When I was sixteen, I had fallen in love with grammar. Just grammar. Spanish grammar, French grammar, English grammar, Latin grammar, each seemed to me like a very cool set of rules to a game better than chess or mah jong. I loved grammar so much that I had made up my own language, which had a tiny dictionary and a huge and complex grammatical structure. I used the language, which I shared with no one, for my adolescent efforts at poetry, most of which I have forgotten , except for this bit:


Se gleserlum lor crilsa

Nin ueraklum weli alush

Erish dateum mir

Pareli esan oth bro, nin...


Leinat corusa tove crilsa

Morddel aisu jan frinoan


The word in my language for mountains was "morddel", and that was the name I chose. The bath grew cold. I got out and dried in a desperate, frozen rush and huddled in bed until the blizzard wore itself out and the junkies came home. My duties caring for their sweet, doomed son resumed. Nothing changed outwardly, but all had changed within.

It was a little, tiny, simple, private decision -- to change my name -- but the moment I made it, it changed me. I was a young person who had plenty of extravagant schemes that I could talk up stubbornly, but in truth, I was nothing but self-doubt, timidity, shame, with the confidence of a squashed bug. Yet now I felt confident and never for a moment doubted that I would carry out my plan to change my name, or that I had the right to do so. Oh ho, what a little fool I was.

©2009 Anne Morddel

A Successful Search in Alsace

This television clip comes from 2002 and was posted on YouTube. It is from a French television presentation, "La Généalogie" and tells of an American tracing his ancestors in Alsace. It is particularly useful in that it shows his visits to local and Departmental Archives, where he looks up actes de naissances on microfilm and has the plans cadastrales explained to him by an archivist. It is in both French and English.


©2009 Anne Morddel


French Genealogy