Revolution & Logistics Or What To Do With The Bodies
One of the joys of history is that it is an infinite topic–there is always something new to learn. For example, last week I realized I didn’t know what happened to all the victims of the French Revolution. So I set out to learn!
The discovery in June of bones at the Chapelle expiatoire in Paris was a revelation. Both a literal one–they believe they’ve found the bones of some of the Revolution’s victims–and one of historical consideration.
History is full of conundrums of what to do with the dead. This has been a challenge from the bubonic plague to (incredibly, horribly) the United States in the year 2020. Where to put the deceased as they await burial and where to bury them can become a logistical nightmare.
The French Revolution was of course rather prolific in it’s dedication to killing. Just thinking of it instantly conjures up images of blood thirsty revolutionaries and tumbrils filled with victims. We now frequently analyze the revolutionary fervor, the ideologies behind it, and the ongoing impact on politics and culture. But rarely do we consider what happened after the crowd was gone and the victim’s remains needed to be dealt with.
Apparently there was a plan, of sorts. Plan may be a bit strong. More accurately there may have been a solution to a problem. During the “Reign of Terror” (when the executions ramped up exponentially), the Revolutionary leaders consecutively assigned four cemeteries as repositories for guillotine victims. Let’s take a look at them.
Cimetière de la Madeleine
This is the cemetery making all the news. It was the original repository for the victims of the guillotine, near what is now place de la Concorde. It is close to the current La Madeleine church but was associated with an earlier church slightly to the northwest. The most famous bodies were those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. However, many others were buried there as well, including Charlotte Corday and Olympe de Gouges.
In 1815, Louis’ brother, the post-Napoleonic King Louis XVIII ordered their bodies be moved to St. Denis. He then ordered the Chapelle expiatoire built in their memory. It was assumed the other bones were moved to the Catacombs. But it seems at least some were secretly stashed in the Chapel!
Back to the Revolution: By spring 1794, the Cimetière de la Madeleine was full. And the locals were complaining about the smell and the hygiene issues. So they moved to the next spot:
Cimetière des Errancis
Located near where Parc Monceau is now, the Errancis cemetery was also called cimetière de Monceau. Originally an open plot of land used for agriculture, it was first made into a “normal” (aka not guillotine victim) cemetery in at the beginning of March 1794. Then it was quickly converted into a repository for the Revolutionary dead.
The victims at this point included early Revolutionary leaders Danton and Desmoulins. And Louis XVI’s sister Élisabeth, who was executed on the same day as Marie Antoinette but buried separately. In total, this round saw about 940 victims buried (stay tuned for round 2!).
In short order, Errancis filled up too and the neighbors were complaining. So we move onto:
Briefly, the cemetery attached to the L’Église Sainte-Marguerite de Paris was used when the guillotine went on a road show. It started in what is now place de la Bastille and then moved to what is now place de la Nation. The cemetery was only used between June 9-13, 1794. Yet about 300 people were buried here. In 1795, it would also become the (probable) burial site of young King Louis XVII after he died in captivity at the Temple prison (yep, that Temple).
The cemetery closed in 1804. The exhumed bones were then placed in a vault within the existing church.
Since it was an already functioning cemetery, there wasn’t a lot of space to meet the bloody vision of the Revolution. So the burials moved to a much more spacious and less public spot:
Cimetière de Picpus
Picpus is on the site of a convent seized in the Revolution, east of place de la Concorde. Its use corresponds to when the guillotine was moved to place du Trône-Renversé (place de la Nation today). The cemetery served as a revolutionary burial place for only about 6 weeks between June 14 and July 27, 1794. But in that brief period, it received over 1,300 victims buried in two mass graves. Post-revolution, the site was bought and converted into a private cemetery for the families and descendants of Revolution victims.
For Americans, this is also the final resting place of the Marquis de Lafayette of American Revolution fame. It is also the only cemetery of the four still extant and viewable (see below).
Of course, Picpus filled up. The operational challenges of The Terror were never-ending! So, the guillotine was quickly moved back to place de la Revolution (Concorde) and the party started again.
However, now the Revolution was consuming the Revolutionaries. Errancis was once again used and this time the big baddies of the Revolution, including Robespierre and Saint-Just, would be buried next to their victims. Karma.
Errancis would continue to be a cemetery until 1797, when it was closed down for hygiene reasons. The bones were eventually moved to the Catacombs in the 19th century as the area was developed. Just a plaque remains for us today.
Reflecting on the loss of thousands of people to an ideology is sobering. The Revolution is not just a turning point in the history of France and Europe. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when things go too far. When charismatic leaders and/or a completely fed-up populace take the reins. Arguably, it was time for the Ancien Régime to go. The 18th century was the dawning of a new world order and the Bourbon monarchy wasn’t able to adjust. But, even though we agree with some of the original ideals of the Revolution–like equality, the end of colonial slavery, women’s rights–their means did not justify the attempted ends. And in the end, they ended up with not just a king but an Emperor.
For the Traveler
Most of the cemeteries may be gone but you can still trace the route of the guillotine and her victims!
Place de la Concorde
The square and giant traffic circle between the Jardin de Tuileries and Champs-Élysées marks the spot where the “National Razor” spent most of her career. Free to walk around, its location was originally a square in honor of Louis XV, then place de la Revolution, and then made into place de la Concorde. For a little more history, check out this earlier article.
Since it is mostly a traffic circle now, it is a quick stop as you explore the area, especially on a long stroll from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe.
Place de la Bastille
Rick Steves calls this one of the great “non-sights” in Europe, since the Bastille itself is now gone. The square marks where the Bastille prison stood until it was stormed and destroyed in 1789 as the opening salvo of the French Revolution.
The square has recently been pedestrianized and is much more pleasant, with a wide open square and greatly reduced traffic. It is also the home of the Bastille Opera House. Check out the markers on the ground (some are on the street–careful!) outlining the location of the Bastille fortress/prison.
Place de la Nation
If you follow rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine east from place de la Bastille, you run into place de la Nation. There is a small park in the center to picnic or take in a less explored part of Paris.
The square is huge and is surrounded by small historic sites and plenty of restaurants. But if you have limited time in Paris or if it is your first trip, I would recommend adding this to the “next time” list.
Speaking of historic sites:
A short walk from place de la Nation, the last remaining Revolutionary cemetery is open to the public on a limited basis to. You enter through Chapelle Notre-Dame de Paix de Picpus on rue de Picpus. The church is open with regular hours. The cemetery is only open a few hours a day (usually 2-5pm) and closed on Sundays and holidays. There is a 2€ fee. Call+33 (0) 1 43 44 18 54 to confirm cemetery times and cost.
Metro: Nation or Picpus
Église Sainte-Marguerite de Paris
Heading back toward Bastille, you can stop by the still functioning church. Check out the plaque dedicated to those originally buried in the now gone cemetery and the monument to the boy king Louis XVII. I haven’t been personally, but the photos make it look fairly utilitarian. Sometimes it is the least assuming places that have the most interesting history! I also enjoy just popping into the small local churches as I stumble on them. They have their own charm. 😄 Church entry is free, please be courteous of regular parishioners and masses.
Metro: Charonne, Ledru Rollin, or Faidherbe – Chaligny
Continuing our journey west, we arrive at what started this whole affair. This small chapel is the one built by Louis XVIII for his brother and sister-in-law Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The grounds around the chapel have memorials to others buried in the original cemetery. It is managed by the Center des Monuments Nationaux and there is a 6€ ticket. The ticket should be purchased ahead of your visit.
Metro: Madeleine, Havre-Caumartin, Saint-Augustin, or Saint-Lazare
Cimetière des Errancis
Another non-site on our journey, there is a small plaque noting the location of the cemetery. The plaque is conveniently near Parc Monceau in the tranquil 8th arrondissement. It would make for a quick pilgrimage before a picnic in the park and play time for the kids. Or a visit to the gorgeous Musée Nissim de Camondo to indulge in your 18th-century aristocratic fancies. Watch out for sans-culottes!
Metro: Monceau, Villiers, or Rome
Last but not least, check out the Catacombs if you want to see the final resting place of a lot of the victims. They are on the rive gauche, some distance from the Revolutionary activity. This one is not for the claustrophobic or squeamish. It is an ossuary, with many actual bones on display. The Catacombs are an official museum, managed by Paris Musées. Entry is 24€ and booking online in advance is required. As of today, July 6, they are booked through July 31, so be sure to reserve your ticket if you want in!
Thank you for joining me on this macabre trip through history. Let me know what you thought below!
Guillotine in Action: “Octobre 1793, supplice de 9 émigrés” . Taken from La Guillotine en 1793 by Hector Fleischmann (d. 1913), published 1908. Found on Wikimedia Commons by Attaleiv, original found Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public Domain.
Tomb of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, 1814: Extract taken from La Guillotine en 1793 by Hector Fleischmann (d. 1913), published 1908. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public Domain.
Élisabeth de France: “Elisabeth-Philippe-Marie-Hélène de France, dite Madame Elisabeth” by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. In the collection of the Chateau de Versailles. Source: Wikimedia Commons, posted by P. S. Burton. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Louis XVII Memorial Stone: “LOUIS XVII” from Wikimedia Commons, by Siren-Com (original post by Mick.2.lapirand0le). Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picpus Cemetery Entrance: “Entrée du cimetière de Picpus” from Wikimedia Commons, posted by Tangopaso. Public Domain, per author.
Errancis Plaque: “Cimetiere des Errancis” from Wikimedia Commons, posted by JHvW. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.