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Burying the Dead

The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris

by Richard A. Etlin
MIT Press, 441 pp., $37.50

Mankind is a peculiar species in that the essential moments in our biological development are all given meaning and form by culture. Being born, growing up, eating, coming of age, pairing off, growing old, being sick, and dying—all are events or successive stages in natural life that have to be interpreted by the discourse of culture and given structure by the symbols of discourse. The study of these structures was long the prerogative of the ethnologist or the folklorist. Then it became the legitimate concern of the student of classical antiquity. It was a long time before these institutions began to be “scientifically” studied as they exist within our own civilization, no doubt because our excessive proximity to them made sociological detachment difficult. But since the beginning of the century, historians have responded to the sociologists’ challenge, and their attitude has begun to change. The originality of the “new history” is to have turned its attention to everyday life, eating habits, table manners, sexuality, the family, the treatment of the sick, death, and so on, in their social and economic setting.

No doubt the changes our society has experienced and the new problems that perplex people today have contributed greatly to stimulating the interest we feel in what preceded them; we have, that is, become drawn to the history of the cultural structures which we regard as outdated but for which our present discontents sometimes make us feel a certain nostalgia.

This is particularly obvious in the case of death. The importance we attach nowadays to preserving life, the growing resources we allocate to health and in particular to hospitals, have contributed to our cutting off the sick, and above all the dying, from their families. A person’s last illness and death were once surrounded by a religious ceremonial in the midst of the family; nowadays death has been reduced to a technical failure in a world governed by scientific reason. People have talked of a “medicalization” of death, but this medicalization is itself only the effect of a general secularization of society. This is the cause of the “solitude of the dying” which has been much discussed and whose many implications—not all of them to the credit of our civilization—have been penetratingly analyzed by Norbert Elias in a recent essay.1

Studies of the history of death have usually concerned the last days of the dying person, the provisions of wills, the family circle, and the comforts of religion—whether present or absent—at the deathbed. This kind of history, which concerns itself with behavior preceding death, can be called “thanatology.” Another kind of history studies the staging of the cult of the dead, the honors paid to them and the monuments that perpetuate their memory, and this we might baptize “taphology.” This second type is most certainly of interest for social history and the history of mentalities; in addition, because the place of burial, and above all the tomb and the cemetery, are all forms designed to impress the senses and to last, this kind of history can be of great value for the history of art, insofar as art history is open to considering monuments and buildings, in their relation to a system of collective values. It is not surprising that the process of secularization is clearly visible both in the acts pertaining to thanatology and in the structures studied in taphology.

This is brilliantly shown in Richard A. Etlin’s recent work, The Architecture of Death. This study is devoted to the history of Parisian cemeteries over a period that saw a crucial transformation, from 1740 to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The end result of this change was to be that the dead were no longer housed within the capital, in the immediate vicinity of the parish churches, but on the outskirts of the city, in a necropolis, and then a whole series of necropolises ringing the metropolis.

The story told by Etlin is one of separation, in which the dead are allocated their place outside the walls, at a distance from urban life. It is a complicated story, expressed in ideas, feelings, images, plans, and creations, and it is intertwined with both social and literary history. The author has managed to do justice to the numerous different aspects of his subject. Starting from a problem in urban history and the history of architecture and landscape, he brings in medical, economic, philosophical, and other factors. A good book of specialized history should radiate in all directions, and such is indeed the case with this one. It is clearly conceived and well planned, and it is based on documents that are very often more or less unknown. It gives the very rare pleasure of encountering well-formulated problems and an unobtrusive erudition that go straight to the heart of things and provoke the reader to further thought.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a very ancient tradition was entering a period of crisis: the inhabitants of Paris were growing alarmed at the overcrowding of the parish cemeteries. They had various different motives for their concern, and this variety offers a good example of the overdetermination one meets when one tries to get at the causes of great historical transformations. The principal motive was a medical one. In many cemeteries, particularly that of the Holy Innocents, the common graves gave out an unbearable stench. Medical opinion held that, in accordance with the Hippocratic tradition, the “miasmas” and the corruption of the air were the direct cause of numerous diseases. Reforms were demanded, and the authorities were in a position to accomplish them. The “embellishments of Paris” called for by many writers and architects at the time consisted of wide, straight avenues lined with houses of regular design, adorned with trees, and bathed in air and light; these avenues converged on spacious squares and circuses.

In addition to these hygienic and aesthetic motives, there were also those connected with the practicalities of urban life, which had now to provide for the rapid circulation of people and goods. The parish cemeteries occupied valuable space, often choking the main thoroughfares and preventing the expansion of trade. The scandal of the cemetery of the Holy Innocents was that it was also a public place and was invaded by the activities of the nearby market. It is highly significant that between 1780 and 1788, when the cemetery and church were closed and demolished, with the exception of the beautiful sixteenth-century fountain, the whole neighborhood became a very busy market.

The old system was not lacking in excellent justifications. As Etlin reminds us:

The physical presence of the dead at the heart of the parish had a theological significance for the living. Parishioners were reminded each time they came to church of their own inescapable end and also of their obligations to the departed, for whose souls they were instructed to pray. This proximity helped to sustain a spiritual bond between parishioners and their ancestors as well as to direct thoughts toward the ultimate teachings of religion.

For the faithful, going to church inevitably meant coming face to face with death and its emblems—ossuaries, écorchés, statues of skeletons—and receiving the solemn warning: memento mori. In this way they were instructed to bear in mind their future death. But now this system of relationships between the living and the dead began to come under severe criticism, often from clerics: they found something indecent in this kind of spectacle, and preferred places of worship to be free of all horrible or macabre sights. Religion was to be appealing, it should point us to eternity without dwelling, in the words of Abbé Lubersac, on the “dismal and crushing sights which constantly remind us of our nothingness.” Etlin is quite right to remark that “the desire to remove the dead from the church was only one manifestation, albeit the principal one, of an inner need for a clarity of purpose in the physical organization of human activities.” These considerations apply also to certain other strange happenings which Etlin does not mention and which also took place in a Paris cemetery—the miraculous cures and convulsions of Saint Médard. The philosophers of the Enlightenment saw in these the incarnation of their enemy, obscurantism or fanaticism.

What then happened at Saint Médard? In 1727 Deacon Pâris had been buried there. He was one of the best-known representatives of Jansenism, a religious doctrine championed in the seventeenth century by such eminent figures as Pascal, Arnauld, Nicole, and Racine, but condemned by Rome and persecuted by the civil authorities. In the eighteenth century the movement, having gone into semiclandestinity, had become both poorer and more radical, and had gained many adherents among the common people. For these believers, the image of death, and particularly that of Christ on the Cross, was as important as the expectation of miraculous happenings—curing of the sick, insensibility to pain from blows or wounds. Immediately after the burial of Deacon Pâris, his tomb began to attract the faithful; sick people were healed, others went into convulsions. Earth was carried off from around the tomb. (These events were frequently recalled in the nineteenth century by specialists writing on hysteria.) A police informer noted in January 1732:

It had been expected that this fervor would subside of its own accord with the onset of bad weather…. However, there are people there from five in the morning to five in the evening, and often important people. They continue to sing psalms there very devoutly; the tomb is always covered with sick people; the convulsions are even more frequent, and from time to time they announce new and important miracles.2

Soon afterward the king ordered the closing of the cemetery. The convulsive believers had to move to the “religious salons.” It is not impossible that such behavior, being regarded as dangerous and seditious, predisposed the political authorities and the clergy to welcome subsequent proposals aimed at moving cemeteries outside towns. The tumult, the crowds, and the strange traffic in relics at the Saint Médard cemetery must have alerted them to the social disorders that could be fomented by a cemetery too closely involved in the life of the city. If the proximity of the dead could give rise to such excesses, this provides us with yet another reason for the hostility of an enlightened section of the Paris population to the parish cemeteries.

Once it was accepted that the cemeteries had to be moved, the imagination was free to invent: it could create visions of the ideal burial place, it could construct ingenious utopias to house the dead, often connected with utopian visions for the living. The spirit of the Enlightenment could be reconciled with certain millenarian dreams in the desire to reshape the city, but it was equally necessary to assign a new resting place to the dead. The Royal Academy of Architecture, in its monthly competitions, provided a stimulus for the ingenuity of young architects. One of the good things about Etlin’s book is the way it demonstrates the innovative, anticonservative effects of these academic competitions in the closing years of the Old Regime. And the many documents he analyzes (with illustrations to match) show the variety of architectural notions called into being by the search for the ideal cemetery.

The most ambitious of the architects attempted to invent a new type of architecture: funeral architecture. Others made use of formal elements inherited from the past: Roman buildings, Renaissance gardens, the Campo Santo of Pisa, the great funerals of the seventeenth century. The place of worship was never forgotten, but its proportions varied from the temple to the church to the modest chapel. Between the search for the sublime and the more economical plans that aim to bring simplicity to our dealings with death, there was a considerable gap, and this corresponded to two different tendencies in the taste of the time: the first strove to rise to the highest eloquence, the second to do away with all external effects in order to emphasize personal feelings and remain faithful to the “Christian view of the humility of death.” A great distance separated the plans of the artists from the more realistic and practical ones proposed by those involved in the actual business of building the cemeteries.

Among the echoes and reminiscences visible in the plans of the neoclassical period, one notices the use of simple geometric forms: spheres, pyramids, obelisks, cones. These could be justified by the desire to do away with frivolous rococo ornaments and get back to great primitive structures whose majesty could express itself in their severe lines. In this way one was coming closer to the productions of a God or Nature conceived as a great geometer.

But at the same time these structures carried with them an entire cultural memory, stretching from Egypt to Renaissance Neoplatonism, from the Pantheon of Rome to the funereal stage settings of baroque theater, by way of the emblematic figures of the treatises on alchemy. This is not surprising; it is well known that at the end of the eighteenth century, the philosophy of the Enlightenment sometimes involved itself in curious compromises with the combination of physics and theology that had emerged from the occultism of the Renaissance. Newtonian physics, far from demolishing the ancient speculations concerning the qualities of the universe, provided welcome support for them by giving manifest and verifiable proof of the postulate of a rational world order. It encouraged people to believe that they could have access to the great laws governing the universal order of things. Man, at least in the vital domain of celestial mechanics, could be the equal of the Creator. Bold spirits, unhampered by any methodological precautions, invoked the laws of Newton in order to extrapolate from them scientific and religious systems which often contained no more than relics of the Christian tradition.

The documents presented by Etlin show clearly that architects, in designing their ideal cemeteries and endowing them with structures that expressed—one could say “spoke”—were often formulating in their own language a discourse parallel to that of the “modern” cults and religions (often extremely eclectic) that appeared at this time and competed with orthodox forms of worship in a society that was becoming dechristianized: Freemasonry, Martinism, theophilanthropy, other vaguer cults of nature or the Supreme Being, sacralization of the fatherland, great men, or humanity.

To build a cenotaph in honor of Newton’s memory was to kill two birds with one stone. In the first place it meant honoring the great man of modern times, no longer the warrior, but rather (in accordance with their own message—Enlightenment ethics) the scientific or literary hero; and secondly it meant celebrating the cosmos in its infinite majesty, as Newtonian physics had revealed it to human reason. Boullée’s famous design for a monument to Newton, enclosing the starry sky within a sphere, was not the only one of its kind. The subject was frequently proposed by the Academy in its competitions. Boullée made use of the sphere again in a temple of nature which united the heavens and the bowels of the earth. Ledoux, in his plans for a cemetery in the town of Chaux, imagined a huge sphere half buried in the earth; above ground, the dome presented the image of the terrestrial globe and the circling planets, but down below the sphere represented the Chaos which preceded the creation of the world, and to which man returns in death. Etlin remarks perceptively: “For Boullée and Ledoux, the bosom of the earth and the immensity of the sky were two faces of a primitive and universal nature.” In other words, eternity, one of the divine attributes, was transferred to nature, while intelligence and goodness, the other attributes of God, became the prerogative of man.

Not all men, however. A mysterious calling had singled out certain people, who had discovered great truths, or exalted the souls of their fellow men by their poetic genius. Newton was not alone; Descartes, Bacon, Racine, and others were placed alongside him. In many plans for cemeteries, these famous men are given prominence and proposed as a model for the living. This selection, which we might call elitist nowadays, goes along with an exhortation to follow their example, an exhortation that pre-supposes, if not the idea of an equality of minds, at least the dream of an equality of opportunities. The cemetery thus becomes, as Etlin nicely puts it, a “space of emulation.” It is the scene of an emblematic pedagogy, an appeal to the will, a call to the glory that rewards beneficent virtue and intellectual prowess: it is no longer Christian redemption that is set against the destructive power of death, but the fame which a man can conquer through his own efforts, inspired by the example of the great men of the past, so as to live in the memory of posterity. Eternal life is to be found only in the eternal gratitude of future generations. The old injunction, memento mori, remember your future death, is replaced by a new one, memento reminisci, remember that you must leave a mark in the memory of mankind.

It was only logical that during the revolutionary period (in 1796) there was a proposal to set up a separate cemetery for criminals, a “space of ignominy,” where the damnatio memoriae would contrast with the celebration of the virtue of good citizens in a parallel cemetery. Pierre Giraud, a prison architect, was to suggest in 1798 that the bones of good citizens be burned, incorporated into molten glass, and made into busts or urns. These busts would “have the inestimable advantage of being portraits made of the very substance of fathers, mothers or wives.” The translucent and incorruptible glass is the material representation of immortality. Make of it a funeral ornament or bring it into the bosom of the family, and the bust of the good father will live forever, handing on to his descendants an imperishable lesson in domestic virtue and citizenship.

The most solemn of these “spaces of emulation” was built in Paris: the Pantheon. On Mirabeau’s death, the need was felt for a “temple of glory.” The principal creator of the monument was the architect and theoretician Quatremère de Quincy. The church of Sainte Genevieve, recently built by Soufflot, was taken away from the Catholic Church, its external appearance was altered by the removal of the towers, and the lighting was changed by walling up the windows and bringing in daylight from above. The plan was to place a statue of Fame on the summit of the building. The crypt was used as a resting place for the mortal remains of the great men; in this way the tombs with their excessively clear image of death were hidden from sight. Quatremère de Quincy wanted neither a mausoleum nor cenotaphs: the visible space was to be occupied only by great allegorical images. On the pediment, which until 1789 had shown the Cross surrounded by rays of light and worshiping angels, a quite different subject was carved: “The Fatherland crowns Virtue, while Liberty seizes by their manes two lions drawing a chariot which is crushing despotism and a genius strikes Superstition to the ground.” On the frieze, which previously carried a dedication to Sainte Genevieve, one could now read the inscription: “To the great men, the gratitude of the Fatherland.”

The monument remained attached to the memory of the French Revolution, but from the time of the Revolution onward, it had a troubled existence. As political power changed hands pantheonizations were followed by depantheonizations—thus with Mirabeau, and then with Marat. The motto on the pediment was first removed and then restored. In a volume recently edited by Pierre Nora, there is a most interesting study by Mona Ozouf, which shows how difficult it was from the start to draw up an “acceptable list of great men,” and how precarious any choices or exclusions were rendered by constant changes in the “legitimating authority.”3

Today the Pantheon is “neither cemetery nor church” but it has become a sacred place for the left; as we know, François Mitterrand, observed by the television cameras, inaugurated his presidential rule with a solemn visit to the Pantheon, red rose in hand. But this splendid building, though it belongs to the French, is not visited by them. One can speak, in Mona Ozouf’s words, of the “failure of the Pantheon.” She concludes her study by reminding us that “we cannot look without a certain mistrust at those great figures which the eighteenth century set before us for our loving admiration”; the monumental image is no longer an effective teaching device:

We know that it is possible to live among colossal statues and edifying paintings without seeing them, indeed that we can turn our backs on them…. What gave weight to the cult of great men at the time when it came into existence, was the faith in the natural harmony of ethics and esthetics, and in the necessary docility of the public to lessons which came to them through the senses.

All that was needed was indeed for the eloquence of the image to be so frequently repeated that it was no longer perceived; in such cases immortal memory gave way to indifference and oblivion. The fact that it was entrusted to “posterity” did not guarantee the eternal life of the great men. It is the same with the oratory of the Revolution; grandiloquence became the order of the day and ceased to carry the public with it.

The removal of Rousseau’s remains to the Pantheon in 1794 did not go unopposed. The arguments put forward on this occasion are a perfect expression of the dilemma facing people of this time as they thought about cemeteries. Rousseau was undoubtedly the genius of the new age, and there was no question that he deserved a place in the “temple of great men.” He had died in 1778, at the château of the Marquis de Girardin, who had offered him hospitality at Ermenonville, not far from Paris. The park at Ermenonville was one of the most beautiful landscape gardens of the period. Rousseau was buried on the Island of Poplars in the middle of a little lake and Hubert Robert designed a marvelous antique tomb for him. And this site, which symbolized so well Rousseau’s solitude, his love of nature, and his admiration for the great souls of antiquity, very rapidly became a place of pilgrimage and even of worship. Was not the grandiose architecture of the Pantheon in contradiction with all this? Some people thought so. And even those who proposed transferring Rousseau to the Pantheon felt obliged to insist that he would not be confined there indefinitely. A vast garden would be created around the Pantheon by knocking down an entire section of the very populous district of the Montagne Sainte Geneviève. Thus Rousseau would find in this green park a place worthy of his spirit.

And indeed, while the architects dreamed of great solemn monuments, veritable cities of the dead, gigantic mausoleums with enclosures, avenues, and majestic places of worship, there was another quite different influence at work on the sensitive souls of the eighteenth century. For them the one true refuge was nature; it was to her bosom that the dead should return, back to the original plain earth, and not into some edifice whose audacious geometry would symbolize the energies and opposing forces of the cosmos. But beautiful simple nature had vanished; space was now almost entirely occupied by useful activities: cultivated fields, roads, industry. In order to rediscover original nature, one had to reconstitute it by the artifice of art—the landscape gardener was called for.

The second part of Etlin’s book, “The Landscape Gardener and the Cemetery,” tells a double story. In the first place there is the invention of the “English garden” of the eighteenth century (Castle Howard, Twickenham, Leasowes, Stowe); then town planners adopt the English garden as an ideal model for the cemetery so as to solve the problem of moving cemeteries outside the city. If the history of gardens in their own right has already claimed the attention of many specialists in Enlightenment aesthetics, the particular virtue of Etlin’s book is to show how a pastoral conception of death and of the memory of the dead brought together a particular aesthetic taste and the search for a practical solution to a problem that faced the entire community. What is interesting is the process of transmission and transformation. A type of art that allowed rich people to enjoy on their own estates the pleasures of an artificial Arcadia or a replica of the Elysian Fields, became for the Paris authorities in 1804 the natural model for planning a true “field of rest” for the dead of a modern city. The immense property of Mont-Louis, which had belonged to the Jesuits until their expulsion in 1762 and had been called after Pere Lachaise, Louis XIV’s confessor, was laid out in the style of a landscape garden. The Pere Lachaise cemetery and its earliest imitations in America bring to a close Etlin’s investigations.4

Etlin’s book gives a full and clear account of the different stages of this process of transmission, and particularly the successive plans of the architect Brongniart. He does not hesitate to discuss literary influences: the way, for example, that the European success of the Zurich poet Salomon Gessner’s idylls helped to create a very close association between the Arcadian image of nature, the poetry of tombs, and the pleasures of gentle melancholy. Etlin is right to note the coming together of the false interpretation of the inscription (Et in Arcadia ego) that Poussin’s famous shepherds decipher on a tombstone and the fictional world into which their tender imagination plunged Gessner’s readers. One could take pleasure in imagining that the departed person whose death one was lamenting had enjoyed, if only briefly, the true happiness of innocent souls, the happiness of the shepherd or the wise man. Cut short by death, this happiness was at once a source of regret and of consolation. A being tied to the earthly landscape returned to the earth; tears might flow freely, but they did not exclude pleasure. Since illusion was given free rein, why not imagine that the passage from life to death was the entry into a state of “sweet rest”?

Etlin very properly observes that such an attitude denies all ideas of decomposition and rejects the communal grave: the private tomb (kept apart, if possible, from the familiar garden) continued the existence of the person. One might in addition cite some extreme cases, such as that of Mme. Necker, mother of Mme. de Staël, who instructed that her body, inside the monument erected in the park of her château at Coppet, should be preserved in alcohol.

In this way, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the last rites of the dead and the preservation of their memory took on an idyllic tone. No doubt Christian traditions, far from dying out, managed to accommodate such changes. But did this not mean accepting that the garden-cemetery had taken the place of the Paradise of theology, which was also a garden? It is a fact that at this moment in Western European history death was tending to become the occasion not so much for hope in the hereafter as for the nostalgia for a past that would never return except under the guise of illusion. Consider one of the principal aims of the art of gardening: it sought through artifice to recall to this earth the image of a state of nature preceding the sad changes wrought in it by human labor. It attempted to resurrect a lost harmony. And precisely insofar as it endeavored to bring back to life a lost world, a primeval age in accordance with the already distant image of it given by the poets of antiquity (the age of gold, the Arcadia of Virgil), this art presupposed a fall for which it provided a fictitious redemption. While bringing back to earth the image of a former state of happiness, the garden was unable to do away with the awareness of death, and all the more so because in the very perfection of its resources it admitted to providing no more than the semblance of redemption.

The art of the landscape garden is essentially a nostalgic art, which by arranging the beauties of nature inspires a melancholy that springs from a feeling of absence. Such places of illusion had necessarily to be peopled by set pieces such as memorial columns, temples (of love, friendship, or the muses), or cenotaphs. These were the signs that gave a tangible language to nostalgia. Is not the cenotaph in all its positive presence the sign of a double negation? The death of the hero, but also the absence of his remains. Etlin reminds us that in the Museum of French Monuments, laid out at the end of the revolutionary period, the most visited spot was the fictitious tomb of Héloise and Abelard, a couple celebrated for their misfortune. This monument shows that the fashionable idealization of antiquity still left room for the idealization of the Gothic and the image of a Middle Ages conceived as the time (albeit tormented) of “organic” unity. It could even happen that the Gothic country church, surrounded by its little cemetery crowded with graves, became the object of nostalgic regret at the very time when in the daily life of the towns it was becoming intolerable to have parish churches surrounded by graveyards, and when the capital was ceasing to be divided by parishes and was organizing itself into administrative divisions (arrondissements) centered on town halls (mairies).

These remarks on the art of gardening apply equally to the literary genre of the idyll. The poets of the late eighteenth century (Gessner, but also André Chenier) aimed to resuscitate more effectively than their predecessors the genre of Theocritus and Virgil. The mere fact of adopting this genre is in itself a confession of nostalgia. More than this, when the idyll sang of a young person departed, it repeated in its subject matter the absence inherent in its form. This artificiality and sense of death were already visible in the idyll of antiquity; they take on a hyperbolic form in the neoclassical idyll modeled on the antique and imitated from the ancient poets.

Etlin’s book thus helps us to see a relationship of reciprocity and symmetry. The infiltration of death into those arts which call to mind the lost unity of man and nature is echoed by the introduction of nature, through the sinuous and undulating form of the landscape garden, into the funeral practices by which the community allotted a place to its dead. This may lead one to think that the gentle unreality of the garden—a nostalgic recreation of Virgil’s Elysian Fields—helps to reinforce the “defense mechanisms” of a society that proclaimed its allegiance to life in order to justify its productive dynamism, a society that wanted to protect itself from the anguish that comes from the overinsistent proximity of death. Rastignac, the ambitious hero of Balzac’s Père Goriot, issues his challenge to Paris from the heights of the Pere Lachaise. The best way of getting rid of the dead is to offer them an idyllic resting place where one can imagine them eternally happy. However intensely one may think of them, it will always be with a sadness that excludes any feeling of guilt. We miss them, but they lack for nothing. Their afterlife is divided between their garden and our memory, or, as some believe, our unconscious, for which time does not exist and which offers itself as a precarious substitute for the eternity promised by religious belief.

translated by Peter France

  1. 1

    Norbert Elias, “Aging and Dying: Some Sociological Problems,” in The Loneliness of the Dying (Basil Blackwell, 1985). 

  2. 2

    Les Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard: Miracles, convulsions et prophéties à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, présenté par Catherine Maire (Paris: Collection Archives, Gallimard-Julliard, 1985), pp. 72–73. 

  3. 3

    Mona Ozouf, “Le Panthéon: l’Ecole normale des morts,” in Les Lieux de mémoire: 1. La République, edited by Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), pp. 139–166. 

  4. 4

    On the present-day appearance of this cemetery, see Frederick Brown, Pere Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate (Viking, 1973).