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May 2019

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


Is It a Surname or a Place?

French names

Rural France abounds with villages (villages), hamlets (hameaux),  and properties (lieux-dits) that have charming or peculiar names, as the case may be. Most were attached to a parish before the French Revolution, then to a commune afterward. They are notoriously difficult for the researcher to locate. Some, such as La Bachellerie, occur all over France. Some, such as Bleigeat, seem to occur nowhere except in the imagination of an immigrant in Louisiana who gave it as his place of birth (though it really does exist).

We have discussed how to use the Cassini maps and the hundreds of online Napoleonic era maps to find some of them. We have shared Professeur B.'s lecture on micro-geography and lieux-dits. We have also given an example of the case of a tricky place name found on a Natchitoches document that required help from French archivists for clarification. There are numerous websites that attempt to list all such names in France that you could try.

What to do when these place names turn up as part of a surname? We are not referring to surnames that are also place names, such as Bourges, or Paris, or Loire. Nor are we referring to "dit names", which are nicknames that, over time, became family names, such as Le Bon, or Le Sage, or Le Grand. ("Dit names" exist in France but are found much more often in Québec.) We also are not discussing here aristocratic names that are compilations of titles and locations. We are referring to the recording of a place name near to a surname in a register and the confusion that it can cause the researcher.

For example, a child whose name appears to be Léonard Farge du Piager was born in Saint-Martial-de-Gimel in Corrèze in 1813.

Du PiagerArchives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

 

His parents are Jean Farge and Marie Puyrobert. Is his surname Farge du Piager, and the officer simply shortened his father's version of the name, or is his surname simply Farge and he is of a place called Piager, (which must be within the boundaries of Saint-Martial-de-Gimel to appear in this birth register)? In the search for that ever elusive comfort, certainty, you might try reading a few pages of the register. In this example, you will find that the name of each child has such an extension and the words are different. This suggests that the officer is indicating in their names where they were born, as the form offers no way to do so. Seeing this practice, you could then check one of the many lists of Corrèze's lieu-dit names for the village to verify that this is what the officer is doing.

In another town, in the same department, Espagnac, the recording officer tried to solve the problem of indicating the place, La Rivière, by putting it in the margin in the birth register.

La RivièreArchives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

 

This would only cause confusion to the researcher when initially reading down the margin, assuming that the place names were surnames, as those are usually what one finds in the margin. Eventually, the penny would drop and one would see that these are not surnames of a few remarkably prolific families but place names of scattered communities.

Again in Espagnac, a different approach was tried a bit later. Here, the officer put both the surname and the place name in the margin of the birth register. In this case, it is immediately clear that the children are not all with grand monikers as the name in the registration is different from that in the margin. In the margin, the child's name appears to be Antoine Borie du Coudert, but in the registration, it is simply Antoine Borie.

Borie du Couderc

Archives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

To verify that the surname is not Borie du Coudert, you could check the table annuelle at the end of the register for the year. It shows that the name is Antoine Borie, tout simple.

Espagnac naissances 1818Archives départementales de la Corrèze, http://www.archives.cg19.fr/recherche/archiveenligne/

To verify that it is a place name, you would have to check maps and lists of place names for Espagnac, as well as read through more of the register to determine the officer's procedures.

We hope that this brings no disappointment, that none of you are having to let go of a name that seemed grand but is more plain and honest. If so, try to remember that some of these place names bring no glory. Du Marais, for example, means "from the swamp".

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


A French Stumbling Block on Your GPS Road

Paris-Vienne 1902

A few years ago, we attended the excellent online study session run by "Dear Myrtle" on the book "Mastering Genealogical Proof" by Thomas W. Jones. We published our own little booklet on trying to align French documentation with the Genealogical Proof Standard. After the second session, we wrote:

      • Civil, as opposed to parish or religious, documentation in America went from almost nothing in the earlier years to documents with an increasing amount of information. In many places, birth, marriage and death records were not kept until the mid-nineteenth century. Remoter places without churches or other religious establishments had no parish records either. In France, in spite of a few revolutions, there has been a steady recording of births or baptisms, marriages and deaths or burials since the sixteenth century.
      • In America, each state, once it decided to record information about individuals, determined what to record and how. There can be at least fifty different types of birth registration, and many more when the differences at the county level are taken into consideration. In France, the department is merely an administrative division, not a separate state with its own rights that is part of a federation. France is a republic with one and only one government, directed from Paris and the directives carried out at the departmental, arrondissement and communal levels throughout the country. Thus, all civil registrations at any one time follow the same format. Historically and still today, that format for a civil registration generally contains a great deal more information than a civil registration does in America.

This means that a researcher in America has to deal with a lack of civil registration that must be supplemented with other types of documentation (such as tax records, court records, etc.) and that much of the documentation, especially if it were created in a remote area with little administration,  may not be trustworthy.  Thus, much of the emphasis of the Genealogical Proof Standard is on the quality of the source and the source of the information. In France, however, civil and legal documentation tends to be more trustworthy for the simple reason that one always has had to show a document to make a document, e.g. to show an authenticated and official copy of one's birth registration or baptism registration (or now, one's identity card) to enroll in the army or to marry.

Primary, Secondary and Indeterminable Information

This requirement enhances the trustworthiness of French documentation -- by the criteria under discussion -- significantly. One panellist, Kathryn Lake Hogan, recounted a tale of a man who, on applying for a marriage license, gave an incorrect name for his parent. This would be unimaginable in France as both of the couple must present official copies of their birth registrations in order to marry, and those birth registrations give their parents' full names.

Perhaps in that last paragraph we were a bit blithe. In the past couple of years, our research has taken us down some tiny paths into the documentation of small communities and baffling families and we have come across an odd phenomenon that would seem to be rooted in some sort of grief or madness or obsession or serious cerebral limitation. What we have encountered is, essentially, a child assuming (or having forced upon it) the identity of a deceased older sibling. The procedure seems to follow something like this:

  • A child, say Antoine, is born in 1820 and dies in 1822.
  • Another child, say Léonard, is born to the same parents in 1825. He has no middle names.
  • No other male child is born to this couple.
  • Throughout his life, Léonard gives his name as Antoine but his date of birth as in 1825. He also gives his parents' names, birth dates, marriage date and death dates correctly.
  • On the census returns, Léonard appears with his family as Antoine, with his age corresponding to his birth year of 1825.

We have just come across our fifth example of this form of resurrection (of the dead child) or soul murder (of the living child) and find it quite remarkably unusual in the way that it is outside of the pattern of love of conformity that is the hallmark of the French civil servant's mind. While it may be fascinating to wonder about what was happening in those peoples' lives to drive them to this, as genealogists, this poses a serious problem with normally reliable French documentation.

It really does seem likely that Léonard born in 1825 is using the name Antoine; and we will want to assume that when Léonard marries using the name Antoine and gives his birth in 1825 and we find the birth registration in the name of Léonard, we can use it. Only we cannot, if we are going to adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard, because we have nothing, absolutely no documentation, to say that Léonard called himself Antoine. What we must do is build a case with a great deal more research.

  • Every census return must be examined to see all possible children
  • The research must be extended to siblings and cousins of the parents to see if, actually, this may not be a cousin Antoine with the same date of birth and with parents of the same names (not at all a rarity) and, actually, that Léonard died in a different commune.
  • The saint's day for Antoine and for Léonard must be identified for the year 1825 and for 1820 to see if any logical use of the names can be discovered.
  • Church records will have to be pursued, not an easy task for post-1792 records, as they are not in archives or public records but belong to the Church. Copies of the baptisms of both children and of the burial record of the first Antoine must be requested from the local diocesan archives to see hnow the names appear.
  • The wills and death inventories of the parents of Antoine and Léonard should be requested, to see clearly the names of their surviving children.

Certainty of identification will probably be denied the researcher. In a case such as this, we suspect that a probable identification will be the best that one can achieve.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Our Tenth Birthday! Notre Dixième Anniversaire!!

10th blog birthday

Really! What sort of blogger sleeps through her own birthday!! We shall claim an excess of celebration for we have reached our tenth birthday! Over those years, we have received from you, Dear Readers, some quite lovely words of support:

"I am not even sure how or when I first glommed on to one of your blog postings; at least 4-5 years back, I believe.  What I clearly know is that I can never just skim one of them.  There is always depth for which a skim would be an insult.  There is, also, not every time your blog pops into my inbox, but frequently, a sardonic paragraph or two of which the two sides of your life-experience, the two sides of your audience are the pillars. So, all that you provide by way of factoids to be followed, and commentary to be consumed, is appreciated." Monsieur C.
 
"First of all, I love your blog and never skip a post, even those that seem to have no immediate application to my research. I also took your online course on notarial records in February and found it useful when translating the 1831 marriage contract for my 5X great-grandparents..." Madame F.
 
"I saw your site recommended on the FB group ... French Genealogy. It’s a great site, and congratulations ...!" Madame Y.
 
"Very much appreciate your blog, and the information you share." Madame L.
 
"I love your blog! So much great information." Madame S.R.
 
"Hi Anne, thank you for your informative posts, which have helped me to understand the shifting nationalistic propriety over the Alsace Lorraine region." Madame H.
 
"Great blog, thanks for your hard work on it." Monsieur G.
 
"I bought your book French Notaires and Notarial Records and have found some useful information, thank you." Madame N.
 
"I just discovered your blog and saw some of the books you’ve written. All very impressive." Monsieur S.
 
"Je suis très honoré et plus respectueux de vous informer que j’ai obtenu des informations utiles grâce à vos instructions pour obtenir les certificats de mon ancêtre de Pondichery de l'Inde Français. Je suis très reconnaissant pour cette aide apportée à toute votre administration." Monsieur A.
 
"This is a brilliant find! Thanks so much for sharing. Your blog is really the most helpful one I read -- always actionable information and useful "where-to access" pointers that are not evident when trying to research from abroad." Madame L.
 
"I do love reading about your adventures, they are always so interesting and good humoured! Your observations are priceless and make my day!" Madame H.
 
"Whenever I do or advise people on French research I start at your webpage. Many thanks for all the help you have given me over the years." Madame G.
 
"Enjoy your stimulating blog." Monsieur B.
 
"I have been a keen follower of your blog posts for some time. You have given so many tips which I have found so useful in my own family history research." Madame S.
 
"Always enjoy your blog & recommend it to all working on their French ancestry." Madame O.
 
 
Many thanks to all of you, Dear Readers, for giving us a grand first decade!
Anne