Sunday, December 03, 2006

Picpus cemetery

Marie, Philippe and I had originally scheduled to meet in Pere Lachaise Saturday afternoon to begin taping our podcasts in division 8, 9 and 10.

Well I was just about to board the Metro when Marie called and said there had been a change of plans. It seems that she and Philippe had read in the local weekly Pariscope,(a listing events throughout Paris) that there would be a special guided tour of the rarely opened crypts beneath Les Invalides (where Napoleon I is buried). Marie said they had been waiting for years for this opportunity and would I care to join them about 2 pm? You bet!

So I retraced my steps to the apartment, hung out for a while, called Susie to see how she was doing (“Fine”) and headed off towards Les Invalides (line 10 from Jussieu to the no. 13 at duroc and then off at Invalides. Simple.).

I arrived about the same as Marie – we met up in the large courtyard just as you enter the main gate (the other end from the “eglise”, the church, where Napoleon and crew are actually buried). A few minutes later Philippe arrived and soon afterwards a crowd started gathering in the courtyard, some 30-40 people eager to take the tour. It quickly became evident that the guide had a bit of a cult following in Paris and that many of the people there had already signed up via (French) word-of-mouth. We soon found ourselves left out in the cold – which it was a bit actually – although in typical Gallic uncertainty the guide informed Marie that “Maybe there’ll be room in an hour or so.”

No thanks.

I told Marie and Philippe that I would head home and after saying au revoir off I went. A few minutes later, just as I left the main entrance to the Invalides I heard someone calling out my name and I turned around to see the two of them chasing after me. “So Steve do you want to go to Picpus cemetery?” Whoa! Yeah! The cemetery is rarely open and very hard to find so I jumped at the chance, you bet.

Picpus cemetery”, you ask? Besides the funny name what’s the deal here? Well several things actually.

The cemetery is actually composed of two parts. One part is where 1,306 of the great and common people of Paris were guillotined in the June and July of 1794. The executions took place on the nearby Place de la Nation (then called the Place du Trone), some days as many as 55 people were beheaded, and the bodies were transported to the closest open space where they were dumped into mass graves. (photo below: the 2 mass graves.)

The second part is the little cemetery next to the mass graves, which holds the remains of some of France’s most well known families. Moreover, it is also the resting place of the Marquis de Lafayette. Yes, that Lafayette: “Lafayette we are here”, Lafayette, Indiana, ,Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Fayetteville, North Carolina and on and on. I mean the man was made an honorary US citizen in 2002.

So the three of us headed for the Metro line 13 got off at the Opera stop, picked up the RER to Place de la Nation where Philippe showed me the spot where the guillotine had been set up. We then pent 15 minutes trying to find our way out of this enormous Place. At last we located the right “spoke” of the hub and soon found the little cemetery, down a small side street away (35 rue de Picpus).

After paying our fee (2 euros and change each) to the fellow at the “conservation” building he showed us to the gate, which he unlocked and let us in to wander around ourselves.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter is a long rectangular green space running deep into the block itself.

At the far side of that is the original door (some discussion here between Marie and Philippe about this), or at least the original entrance used by the carts which brought the headless bodies from the Place to the mass graves here; several dozen a day in fact. Nasty business.

There is also a small segment of the original wooden palisade that once surrounded the gravesites.

Off to the right, is the small cemetery itself, behind which is a stone wall and a locked gate, and at the far back are the two mass graves. The little cemetery is where you can find Lafayette’s grave, next to the entrance to the mass grave section, and is decorated with various markers from the United States' organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

There is also a plaque memorializing the 16 Carmelite nuns who were executed on July 24, 1794. Ranging in age from 29 to78 they went to the scaffold singing hymns as a choir, until one-by-one the last nun, still singing was executed. They were beatified in 1906.

There are also recent memorials as well. One just has to prove that a member of their family was one of the 1,306 who were originally buried in the mass graves.

From the little cemetery we walked back toward the entrance and into the small chapel near the main gate.

The interior was nearly dark except for the far back left wall of the transept which was lit up so one could read the enormous plaque listing some of all the names of those 1,306 who were executed that summer. Reading the plaques on the walls – there was another one on the opposite transept wall -- which seem to go all the way to the ceiling, and arranged by date of execution, one can’t help but feel the tragic, stupid absurdity of what happened just a few hundred meters away more than two centuries ago. I used to think of the Terror as striking mainly at the nobility – which it did certainly – but more than half of the names on these lists were simple commoners like Marie Bouchard, age 18, “domestique”or Jean Baptiste Marino, age 37, porcelain painter or Raymond Borie, age 19, shoemaker. Horrible.

We left the chapel and walked out into a light drizzle, said au revoir (again) and plan to meet up the next weekend at Pere Lachaise.

Wish you were here,


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