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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feel in what preceded them; we have, that is, become drawn to the history of the cultural structures which we regard as outdated but for which our present discontents sometimes make us feel a certain nostalgia.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.

  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.

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