The Pandemic Takes Its Toll on French Graves
29 November 2020
Another Toussaint has come and gone in France and, as in every year, many thousands of pots of chrysanthemums have been placed by the graves of the departed. In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, there seem to be many more new graves and tombs in the cemeteries. As of this writing, the French government reports that more than 52,000 people in the country have died of Coronavirus. As elsewhere, a large proportion of those who have died were elderly. Where possible and where desired, their bodies have been placed in family tombs or plots of cemeteries across the country.
French cemeteries are quite different from those in North America or Great Britain, as we have explained in detail here and here. The greatest difference is surely the reclamation of the plots of untended graves. This is something that many foreigners find quite shocking but that the French find to be a purely practical matter of public health and hygiene. To repeat our earlier posts, if any grave or family tomb is left untended and should fall into disrepair, a legal procedure is begun to reclaim the space, beginning with a notice of intent being placed on the grave.
Roughly translated, the notice reads:
With the ravages of time, this grave has deteriorated or seems to have been abandoned. A process to reclaim it has been begun. If you wish to retain it, please go to the town hall for [instructions on] the procedure to follow.
If someone comes forward to pay for the repair and restoration of the grave, it remains; if not, it is reclaimed by the municipality and the bones are placed in an ossuary. Then, the plot is sold anew.
Now, with so very many deaths from coronavirus, the pressure on cemeteries to find more space is intense, and one sees the reclamation notices much more often than before.
Recently, Family Tree Magazine published a very fine online article by Sunny Jane Morton, entitled "Find a Grave: 7 Strategies for Successful Searching". Her good suggestions are not of much use when applied to French cemeteries. In a country such as France, family and society are more important than the individual and so, family tombs tend to show only the surname and not the names of the many individuals entombed within. Neither Find-a-Grave nor its more complete French counterpart, Geneanet.org, is set up to help in finding out who is buried in a family tomb. Moreover, neither website has any way to note if a grave still exists or has been reclaimed. (Geneanet, pointing out that some 200,000 graves are reclaimed every year, maintains a campaign of mass photographing, "Sauvons nos tombes", but this does not address the issue squarely. What is needed is a campaign to digitize municipal burial and cemetery registers, but this would require contracts and payments instead of volunteers with cameras.)
Sadly, with the pandemic causing this sudden increase in the reclamation of plots and, thus, the disappearance of graves and tombs, for those that have not been recorded on either of these sites, it will be difficult for a researcher to know that they ever existed.
To learn more about French cemeteries, see our booklet, "Death and Cemeteries in France".
©2020 Anne Morddel