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Explaining French Cemeteries, or Why You Are Unlikely to Find Your Ancestor's Grave in France

French Cemetery

In a comment on our 2009 post about French cemeteries, Monsieur V wrote:

"In your article, you wrote "Pre-nineteenth century church graveyards in towns - all were destroyed as a public health measure". What does that mean? I am looking for family burials in small, rural French towns. It seems that when I look at Google Earth, the cemeteries now are all located outside of town, usually along the road leading into the small town. They seem to only have modern graves, certainly not all of the graves for the hundreds of farmers and families that died in these small towns over the hundreds of years. It is a big difference from rural cemeteries here in the U.S. which usually have headstones surrounded by grassy areas of those who did not or could not afford a marker."

Many of you have expressed similar bafflement or disbelief, so we think it necessary to explain, yet again, one of the many ways that France is not North America or Britain or Australia. The Enlightenment in France brought a wave of scientific and clear thinking that in turn lead to changes considered improvements. Among the clear thoughts was the realization that the dead were polluting the atmosphere and the water, especially the ground water, and that the cemeteries that held their corpses were a very serious public health problem. 

This was exacerbated by the fact that, in crowded cities, cemeteries were the only parks and were used as such. Fairs, markets, dances, parties, all were held in cemeteries. During invasions, people ran there for refuge. The Church did not like this and built walls around the cemeteries to prevent the parties, at least. The consorting in close proximity to corpses could not have been good for the health of the living.

Among the consequent improvements was a law issued by the king in 1776, la Déclaration du Roi, concernant les inhumations, requiring inner city cemeteries to be closed and the practice of burying the dead within churches to cease. Land outside of the city walls was to be purchased for new cemeteries and the corpses in old cemeteries were to be dug up and transferred. Hundreds of French cities complied. Needless to say, not all of the reburying was done with diligence. In Paris, the contents of the cemetery of the parish of Sainte-Opportune, known as the Cemetery of Holy Innocents, became the nameless bones of the Catacombs. 

The process was continued with the Napoleonic decree of 1804, which gave more precise instructions to municipalities as to where to site the new cemeteries, how deep the graves should be and how far apart. Most importantly, cemeteries were removed from the authority of the Catholic Church and became the responsibility of the municipalities. Municipal council deliberation books of the era are filled with discussions of how to empty the old cemeteries and construct the new. From these new procedures came the requirements that graves be maintained by the families of the dead; if not, they would be emptied and the bones sent to the ossuary.

All of this explains why it is rare to find an old French cemetery next to a church, filled with ancient graves, such as you might find in England. Some do exist, but very, very few. Thus, distrust all family histories that say sixteenth century graves of ancestors in France have been seen in the 1890s. Most likely, those cemeteries claimed to have been visited had already been destroyed. If France is poor in ancient cemeteries, we really do recommend that you not spend too much time seeking a grave. Instead, spend your genealogical research efforts where France is rich - on notarial records.

Further reading:

Bertrand, Régis. "Origines et caractéristiques du cimetière français contemporain". Insaniyat / إنسانيات Revue algérienne d'anthropologie et de sciences sociales, no. 68, 2015 "Espaces et rites funéraires" (30 June 2015). http://journals.openedition.org/insaniyat/15129

Ligou Daniel. "L'Evolution des cimetières". Archives de sciences sociales des religions, n°39, 1975. Évolution de l'Image de la Mort dans la Société contemporaine et le Discours religieux des Églises [ACTES DU 4e COLLOQUE DU CENTRE DE SOCIOLOGIE DU PROTESTANTISME DE L'UNIVERSITÉ DES SCIENCES HUMAINES DE STRASBOURG (3-5 OCTOBRE 1974)] pp. 61-77. https://www.persee.fr/doc/assr_0335-5985_1975_num_39_1_2767

Zeller, Olivier. "LA POLLUTION PAR LES CIMETIÈRES URBAINS Pratiques funéraires et discours médical à Lyon en 1777". Société française d'histoire urbaine, vol 1, no. 5, 2002 «Histoire urbaine»,  pp. 67-83. https://www.cairn.info/revue-histoire-urbaine-2002-1-page-67.htm

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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