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Finding a Grave in France



Genealogists here in France have begun to lament the paucity of French content on such tomb-enumerating web sites as Find-a-Grave or Billion Graves, both of which have little more for France than military cemeteries. There is also GeneaNet, which is building a collection of cemetery photographs, which is a bit odd as it is still illegal to take photographs in French cemeteries. Perhaps they work around this by also including photographs of the monuments aux morts, commemorative plaques (of which many more have been put up recently in local cemeteries giving lists of the Jewish people killed during the Second World War) and, again, of the military cemeteries. 

In the face of the usual resistance, change is on the way, if from an unexpected corner. Groupe ELABOR, an association of geographers and cartographers who also are keen to manage cemeteries, has joined with others to get government backing to set up "Cimetières de France". In its very early days yet, the goal is to do for France -- but through qualified cemetery professionals (and none of these clumsy, amateur enthusiasts, thank you very much) -- what Find-a-Grave has been doing for the United States: provide a database of all names in all cemeteries that can be searched by name, cemetery name or location. It is very ambitious but still quite small.

Even so, it will not be of much help if what you seek is an individual's grave stone. This is because, as we have written before, except for the famous or prominent, it is not common for individuals to have their own grave or their own name on a grave marker. The tradition runs to family tombs which give only the family's surname or surnames.

Finding an individual's grave from long ago is further complicated by the fact that the ever-practical French do not preserve graves that are not maintained; the remains are removed and sent to the ossuary. The thinking seems to be that if the family cannot be bothered to maintain its graves, then the cemetery management itself certainly will not do so. (Those with Huguenot roots fare somewhat better here for some Protestants, being denied burial in Catholic cemeteries and not wanting to be lumped in with the heathen, buried their dead in the family garden -- a practice not rare in some places but pretty much unthinkable in France -- and some of these graves remain to this day.)

So, how to find where an ancestor is buried in France, if possible? Firstly, where NOT to look:

  • The civil death registration, as the place of burial is never noted on such. (However, this document is crucial for other details.)
  • The town hall, le mairie, where the person died but was not buried, for each keeps a list only on those buried in the cemeteries within its borders; if your ancestor were buried elsewhere, only the town hall of that place will have a record of it.
  • Pre-nineteenth century church graveyards in towns - all were destroyed as a public health measure.

 Where and how to look?

  • Have you found the deceased's will? The will could indicate where he or she wished to be buried -- and if money were left to pay for it. Following through to the probate could indicate if this were done. Either or both could lead to a cemetery name.
  • In the late nineteenth century, funeral announcements, a type of faire-part, were the fashion and one for your ancestor may be in one of the many collections around the country.
  • A woman might be interred with her husband, so find where he was buried and check if she may not have been placed in the same tomb.
  • Look at census returns to know where he or she was living at the time of death. Since people have taken up the practice of dying in hospitals which are often not in the same commune as their home, the death registration may be in the civil registers of a place far from where they lived and were buried. The most recent census before death may lead to a place of residence and therefore burial.
  • From the nineteenth century, professional organizations published death notices in their bulletins or newsletters. The death registration should say the deceased's profession, enabling a search of the local professional associations and their publications. 
  • Was the deceased penniless? Lucky you! The may have been a discussion of how to pay for the burial -- indicating where also -- in the minutes of the town council, les délibérations municipals.
  • Was the deceased mad? The insane were often sent to institutions and ignored by their families ever more. When they died, they were usually not reunited with the family even in the tomb but were buried by the institution. If in a city, this would have been in the municipal cemetery. Many institutions in the  countryside had their own burial grounds or used the local cemeteries, among them the psychiatric hospitals of:
    • Cadillac-sur-Garonne in the department of Gironde
    • Saint-Alban in Lozère
    • Fains in Meuse
    • Lesvelec in Morbihan
    • Leyme in Lot
    • Vauclaire at Montpon-Menesterol in Dordogne
    • Perray-Vaucluse in Essonne
    • Bailleul in Nord
    • Montfavet at Avignon in Vaucluse

It is also be possible to request the medical file from the hospital, though only if the person died 150 or more years ago.

Once you have tried all of the above, you can write to the mayor of the town to ask for the burial record. (If in Paris, write to the Bureau des Cimetières.)

Good luck!

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy