Archive for the ‘death’ Category


Paris’ celebrated Père Lachaise cemetery is the resting place of many world-famous and infamous as well as an outdoor art gallery. This oasis of tranquility and greenery sees one million visitors a year.

The hill, on which the cemetery is established, originally served as a site for the rest and convalescence of Jesuit priests. It was named after the confessor of King Louis XIV, Père de la Chaise.





The Holy Innocents Cemetery

The centrally situated Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, where Parisians buried their dead, was used from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was closed in 1785 when Parisians could no longer bear the repugnant stench emanating from the graves. Serious overcrowding pushed up the price of burial space, and bodies were packed so closely together that many graves collapsed through the cellar walls of surrounding houses. Over the course of six months, day and night, 4,183 bone transports were organized. The transfers were accompanied by a full religious ceremony, complete with chanting Catholic priests. The remains of over six million Parisians were laid to rest in the city’s elaborate catacomb system.



The bones from the Cemetery of Innocents were stored underground. The Catacombes, where you can see them, are part of the regular tourist itinerary


The 1789 revolution disrupted the project of new burial places, which was later carried on under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, who created the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1804. The idea of a long trek to the city outskirts was not well received as Parisians were used to paying homage to their loved ones in the city center.


The Père Lachaise cemetery had a slow beginning


To boost interest, the authorities created a brilliant marketing scheme. The remains of prominent dead celebrities were dug up, and reburied in Père Lachaise, starting with the bones of the 12th century iconic lovers, Héloise and Abélard, followed by other serious celebrities such as the playwright Molière, and writer Jean de La Fontaine. People started buying up plots as it became the height of fashion to spend the eternity amidst the crème de la crème of Parisian society. Today the cemetery is one of the most exclusive places to be buried. To qualify, you must have been born in Paris, lived in Paris, died in Paris, or have an existing family plot.

Some one million people are buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. It is the largest green space in Paris with over four thousand trees and is home to the most varied species of birds in the city.


The Crematorium

Père Lachaise houses a neo-byzantine style crematorium, the first in France. The first cremation in 1889 was quite controversial. While the Protestant faith allowed cremation as of 1888, the Catholic Church did not support the concept until 1966.


Funeral Sculpture

The cemetery is an open-air museum of funeral sculpture best represented by Albert Bartholomé’s stunning Monument for the Dead inaugurated in 1899.




The Monument for the Dead (Monument aux Morts)


Along with the solemn, the pious, and the serious, there are original and sometimes bizarre creations celebrating the dead.



One who doesn’t seem to like his final resting place, it’s Georges Rodenbach, a 19th-century Belgian novelist. We see him extracting himself from his grave.



Another unusual grave belongs to journalist Victor Noir assassinated in 1870. The sculptor froze him in time as he fell in the street after the shooting. The sculpture brought him post-mortem glory as Père Lachaise’s fetish of fertility.



Visitors bring tributes to the dead. They leave potatoes on the tomb of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), an agronomist, best remembered for promoting  the potato as a food source for humans


The Communard’s Wall (Mur des Fédérés)

The Père Lachaise cemetery was not always a haven of peace. During the Commune of Paris, the place saw hand-to-hand combat among the graves, where the Communards took their last stand. At the end of the “Bloody Week”, on May 28, 1871, one hundred and forty-seven Communards were taken prisoner and were shot against the east wall of the cemetery. Their bodies, and thousands more taken from the streets of Paris, were buried in a mass grave. Every May 28, for 150 years, a ceremony takes place by the wall as workers endeavor to remember the tragic event.




A ceremony by the Communard’s Wall marking the 150-year anniversary of the Paris Commune in 2021


Related posts:

The Dead of Paris

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune


Read Full Post »


Between May 1889 and June 1890, a pandemic of influenza swept over the world. Known as the Asian Flu, or Russian Flu, it was one of the deadliest in history, killing about one million out of the world’s population of circa 1.5 billion. The disease was first reported in the Central Asian city of Bukhara in May 1889, to reach the American continent in December of the same year. Never before had a virus spread so quickly and on such a large scale. With the rapid growth of railway transport and an improvement in sea travel, humanity was no longer entirely safe from a pandemic, no matter the distance.

Distribution of help to the influenza victims


How did people cope then? The treatment was chaotic. Some used small doses of strychnine, others believed in large quantities of rum or whisky. Linseed, salt and warm water, glycerin or quinine were also used, none of which would be very helpful. Little was known of viral contagion, as even some doctors still believed in the miasma theory according to which disease was spread by bad air, the night air being the worst.

When even prayers did not bring results, there was always the song. Long, mournful ballads helped our ancestors to deal with their loss. The lyrics sold by street singers conserved the memory of important, often tragic events


Related post:

The Dead of Paris


If you like these posts, support the author by buying her books:

Read Full Post »

Emile Zola 1860-1902

Read  Emile Zola’s biography and literary output in Wikipedia

The following is a passage in Zola’s Therese Raquin (1867):

…Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. He had made up his mind to attend to the business himself. Notwithstanding that his heart rose with repugnance, notwithstanding the shudders that sometimes ran through his frame, for over a week he went and examined the countenance of all the drowned persons extended on the slabs.

While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. Laurent at first only caught sight of the wan ensemble of stones and walls, spotted with dabs of russet and black formed by the clothes and corpses. A melodious sound of running water broke the silence.

Little by little he distinguished the bodies, and went from one to the other. It was only the drowned that interested him. When several human forms were there, swollen and blued by the water, he looked at them eagerly, seeking to recognise Camille. Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. Laurent hesitated; he looked at the corpses, endeavouring to discover the lean body of his victim. But all the drowned were stout. He saw enormous stomachs, puffy thighs, and strong round arms. He did not know what to do. He stood there shuddering before those greenish-looking rags, which seemed like mocking him, with their horrible wrinkles.

One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing…

When there were no drowned persons on the back row of slabs, he breathed at ease; his repugnance was not so great. He then became a simple spectator, who took strange pleasure in looking death by violence in the face, in its lugubriously fantastic and grotesque attitudes. This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him.

Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness.

Each morning, while Laurent was there, he heard behind him the coming and going of the public who entered and left.

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had been burnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

There came persons of small independent means, old men who were thin and shrivelled-up, idlers who entered because they had nothing to do, and who looked at the bodies in a silly manner with the pouts of peaceful, delicate-minded men. Women were there in great numbers: young work-girls, all rosy, with white linen, and clean petticoats, who tripped along briskly from one end of the glazed partition to the other, opening great attentive eyes, as if they were before the dressed shop window of a linendraper. There were also women of the lower orders looking stupefied, and giving themselves lamentable airs; and well-dressed ladies, carelessly dragging their silk gowns along the floor.

On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the latter standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet.

She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew…

Related posts:

The dead of Paris

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 7: Sightseeing

Also read the excellent post  by Geri Walton Hanging Out at La Morgue in 19th Century Paris

Read Full Post »

One hundred years before the Euro Disney, the Paris morgue was a popular attraction both for locals and tourists.

(From Paris Partout! A guide for the English and American Traveller in 1869 or How to see PARIS for 5 guineas)

Passing over the profusion of churches, monuments, galleries, and sights familiar to every tourist, we would draw the visitor’s attention to the MARCH OF IMPROVEMENT evidenced by this great city. In every quarter, at every level, Paris rises astonishingly anew. The sentimental antiquarian may mourn the loss of old Paris and its romantic past; the strict moralist may deplore the glory accorded to Mammon throughout, but others must justly rejoice at the triumph of modern science and hygiene.

The wonders begin at the lowest level: Paris’s new system of sewers consists of six main lines, fed by fifteen secondary lies, by means of which the city’s whole storm drainage is conducted to a grand receptacle beneath the Place de la Concorde, whence it is discharged by a shaft – the most extraordinary of its kind – sixteen feet high, eighteen feet wide, and three miles in length. The sewers may be visited, via an opening in the Boulevard de Sébastopol.

The foot pavement may also be remarked upon. Twenty-five years ago, it was detestable, worse even than London’s, and consisting in great part of large uneven stones, slopping from the houses down to the middle of the road, along which ran a copious and noxious gutter. The city is now widely blessed with smooth coatings of asphalt.

Les Halles market - the food cathedral. An example of the Industrial Age architecture.

Les Halles. An immense establishment, adjoining the old Marché des Innocents, on which the market people had constructed a set of wretched huts that continued to form Paris’s central market until very lately. In 1852 the present commodious and elegant Halles were begun from the architectural plans of M. Baltard, the result being eight large, lofty, and handsome pavillons,  intersected by carriageways and joined by one immense roof of iron framing and glass covering. One pavilion serves as a fish-market, another poultry, another fruit and flowers, a fourth for butter, cheese, and eggs, two for butcher’s meat &c. The vaults below, which may be visited, contain marble tanks and fountains for live fish, and underground tramways to the railway termini, by which produce is brought in from the country and rubbish removed without encumbering the streets. The whole site extends over five acres and has cost in excess of £l,500,000. Four million bricks in the vaulting alone, and five million kilogrammes of iron were used in the whole construction. There are eight electric clocks, public conveniences, and extensive gas lighting.

Bois de Boulogne - to see and to be seen

Bois de Boulogne, four miles west of the Louvre. This favourite promenade was up to 1852 a regular forest, with walks and rides cut through. In 1852 the Emperor, determined to copy, or rather improve upon, the London parks, presented the Bois to the city of Paris, and, in concert with the Municipality, dug out the lakes, and made the waterfalls, raised mounds, traced new roads, and converted the whole into the present and popular place of public resort.

At the north angle, near the Porte de Sablons, five acres have been given over to the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation. Here are no wild beasts in the usual sense of the term, but only animals which may possibly be usefully acclimatized: yaks, tapirs, hemiones, viculas etc. Hitherto only lama and the Tibetan ox have succeeded. There are pretty views from the crevices of artificial rockwork which has been reconstructed for wild goats and mouflons. Eggs, and cuttings and seedlings from the exotic flora with which the garden is planted, may be purchased.

La Morgue, Quai Napoléon. The lower orders in Paris are fond of theatrical horrors, but it is not easy to understand how so repulsive a phenomenon, rebuilt in 1864, can be tolerated in a civilized country. Entering this building, one sees a glazed partition behind which stand two rows of black marble tables, inclined toward the spectator and each cooled by a constant stream of water. On these tables are exposed cadavers of those found dead or drowned, naked except for a strip of leather across their loins. Each corpse, often hideously bloated or disfigured, is thus left for three or four days, awaiting the identification of friends or family. Along the walls are hanged clothes and defects of the defunct. In 1866 the Morgue received a record 733 corpses – 486 men, 86 women, 161 infants. Of these 445 were identified; 285 had committed suicide by drowning, 19 were homicidal victims, 36 were hanged, 5 had shot themselves, 3 had been knifed, 6 charcoaled, 6 poisoned, 3 starved, and 82 had died suddenly in the street. Failed speculation on the Stock Exchange is said to be the greatest cause of suicide.

               What, one must ask, is the use of such a monstrous proceeding? Few, surely, would recognize their oldest friend, naked, wet, and stretched out on a marble slab; and there are, in fact, numerous cases of persons not identifying their nearest relations, while others have wrongly laid claim to someone they knew not. A perpetual throng runs in and out of this loathsome exhibition, too many of them English and American tourists. There they stand, gazing at the hideous objects before them, sometimes with exclamations of horror, sometimes with utter vicious indifference. A poor madman, who fancies himself dead, comes every morning to see if he can recognize his own corpse, and is hardly to be driven away.

Next:Part 8 – Beware!

Read Full Post »

The Dead of Paris

From Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton. Text written in 1873.

The whole arrangement for burying the dead, and furnishing coffins, carriages, and all the requisites for funerals, are in the hands of an incorporated company, no one else having the right to interfere with the business. In fact, it is, like the tobacco business, a source of large revenue to the government. The monopoly is granted to this incorporated  company under the title Entreprise des Pompes Funèbres , whose principal office is at 10 Rue Alibert, whilst it has branch offices in each in the arrondissements into which the city is divided. The officers of this company take charge of the body, and prepare for the funeral upon just such a scale and at such expense as the family may desire. Their schedule of prices is such as to suit the purses of all parties, and they are required to bury the very poor gratuitously.

A “first class funeral” is set down on a schedule as costing seven thousand  one hundred and eighty-one francs (about one thousand five hundred dollars), the cost of each item of expense being enumerated. There are other nine classes, the lowest costing eighteen francs and seventy-five centimes, including the religious ceremonies.

There are however no limits to the cost of first class funerals, as it depends altogether upon the means of the family and its desire for funeral pomp. The horses, hearses, carriages and drivers are all of a different character for each of these ten classes, the difference being in the age and spirit of horses, the good looks of the drivers, the quality of their clothing, the harness of the horses, the ancient or the modern built of the carriages, etc. The hearse is graded from a splendid structure down to a hand-cart, and the extremely poor are merely furnished with a hand-barrow to enable the friends to carry the body on their shoulders to the grave. The quality of the grave-clothes, of the coffin and everything else, is graded to the price, as they may be ordered form class No. 1 to class No. 2.

Besides getting the dead poor buried without cost, the government receives from the company thirty-three and a third per cent of the produce of funeral ornaments, and fifteen per cent on that of all other articles furnished. The revenue from these sources is quite large, and, as the cemeteries are also the property of the city government, the dead, as well the living, contribute their quota to beautifying Paris. The dead are allowed to occupy the ground for only five years, when their bones are carted off, probably for agricultural purposes, and the space they occupied is given to some new claimant for the privilege of the soil. There are three kinds of graves in the cemeteries, even for those who pay for the right of sepulchure. Some people purchase the perpetual right for their friends to occupy the soil, but it is generally conceded for five years or more, subject to renewal. If not renewed, the bones are taken up, and the ground is prepared to lease to some new-comer. In the common graves, or, as they are called, fosses communes, the poor are gratuitously buried four and a half feet deep in coffins placed close to, but not on top of, each other. This economizes space, as well as saves labor in their removal when the five years have expired.

Among the items of city receipts last year in Paris are the following: Dues on burials, 696,000 francs ($120,000); Sale of lands in cemeteries, 1,546,000 francs ($225,000). We do not, however, find any return for the sale of human bones, which is probably a perquisite of the grave-digger.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: