Brossillon on Legacey (2019)


Legacey, Erin-Marie. Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830. Cornell UP, 2019, pp. 228, ISBN 978-1501715594

Céline Brossillon, Ursinus College

In Making Space for the Dead, Erin-Marie Legacey studies the emergence of a new post-Revolution burial culture through a study of three spaces: the Paris catacombs, the Père Lachaise cemetery, and the Musée des monuments français. Legacey shows how Parisian burial sites sought to restore social order and community cohesion, becoming a source of collective identity after the Revolution left France and the French shattered. In order to demonstrate the progression “from deadly sources of contagion to delightful urban destinations” (2), she organizes her book around five chapters: the first two discuss growing concerns for health and morality tied to burial practices after the Revolution, and each of the last three reference one of the spaces mentioned above.

The first chapter, “The Problem of the Dead,” centers on growing eighteenth-century health concerns related to the presence of mass graveyards in the heart of Paris, especially the Cimetière des Innocents. In parallel to discourses on insalubrity, city planners advised doing away with memento mori and the somber atmosphere of Old Regime graveyards. Instead, they sought to design cemeteries that would be peaceful and welcoming to visitors, with trees, flowers, and grass. Inscriptions emphasizing the virtuous lives of the dead would transform cemeteries “from a pestilential problem in need of repair to a potentially powerful urban space at the heart of the republican cultural project of social and moral regeneration” (42). 

In chapter two, “The Solution of the Dead,” Legacey observes that in spite of such discussions, the issues of overcrowding and insalubrity remained largely unchanged until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1796, residents and Parisian officials filed more and more petitions against the practice of mass graveyards out of concern for hygiene and public health, but also with outrage over the fact that many of the men in these exposed graves were decapitated during the Terror, thus serving as a persistent reminder of the violence that had shaken France. Respectful burial rituals seemed essential to restoring the social and moral regeneration after such dark times. Discussions about the design of cemeteries and the treatment of the dead reflect the Revolution’s concerns for replacing privilege with equality and fraternity, everyone—rich or poor—deserving their own place of rest. In turn, this practice would strengthen the connection to the patrie, making French citizens more inclined to defend the land of their dead. In 1804, Napoleon’s “Décret impérial sur les sépultures” ordered city planners to move cemeteries to the outskirts of Paris, surrounded by walls, on elevated terrain, with separate graves for everyone.

Chapter three, “The City of the Dead,” focuses on Père Lachaise cemetery through an analysis of the cemetery’s guidebook. Père Lachaise provided a new model: it had trees, flowers, grass, and inspiring epitaphs emphasizing the virtues of the dead. It had mass graves for the poor (free), permanent concessions (for a fee), and temporary concessions (rented spaces valid five years). Even the mass graves were improved: bodies lay side by side in long trenches, not on top of each other. Wooden crosses marked the spot of loved ones with the deceased’s name, date of birth and death, and sometimes a short inscription. But Legacey warns against romanticizing this new model: by 1821, eighty percent of the population in the Père Lachaise was interred in mass graves and, over time, remains shifted. Families often found themselves mourning someone else’s corpse.

Chapter four, “The Empire of the Dead,” describes the Paris catacombs, which opened to the public in 1809. For this chapter, Legacey relies on the catacombs’ guest book (1809–13). Since Antiquity, the Paris underground had been harvested for its limestone, creating tunnels that, from 1786 to 1793, became the ideal storage space for bones from the Cimetière des Innocents. In March 1809, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, “inspecteur général des carrières,” undertook to transform the catacombs “from a repository of scattered bones into a public monument” (106). Even though the catacombs were supposed to honor the dead, they became a place of morbid entertainment due to a growing fascination at the turn of the nineteenth century for the macabre, a consequence of French people’s desensitization to violence after the Revolution (110–14).

Chapter five, “The Museum of the Dead,” discusses the Musée des monuments français (1793–1816), which gathered historical sculptures, architectural fragments, and mausolea, with an exterior courtyard, the “Élysée,” containing the remains of influential philosophers and writers like Molière, Descartes, and Abélard and Héloïse. The museum’s director, Alexandre Lenoir, organized his museum chronologically to present a comprehensive history of France. Most mausolea were empty: in 1793, Republicans destroyed royal tombs, keeping anything of value while the remains were abandoned to the violence of vengeful crowds. Lenoir fought to save the mausolea, as they were emblematic of France’s past, and answered France’s need for social cohesion after the Revolution. 

Legacey’s conclusion is devoted to Jules Michelet, whom she calls “the Historian of the Dead.” He spent a great deal of time in Père Lachaise and the Musée des monuments français as a child. This discussion of Jules Michelet might more productively have been added to chapter three—devoted to Père Lachaise—which would have left room for more of Legacey’s own conclusions. Her use of sources rarely used by historians, like cemetery guidebooks and the Catacombs’ guest book, make this book a precious addition to existing research on cultural burial practices. Making Space for the Dead is a brilliantly researched book, well organized, and easy to read. It offers a comprehensive overview of French concerns with cemeteries and their hygiene and health, and with identity and morality.