All Saints’ Day Is Celebrated in Paris: 1887

All Saints’ Day, Emile Friant, 1888 Musee des beaux-arts de Nancy

All Saints’ Day Is Celebrated in Paris.

Paris, November 3, 1887. “The air is full of farewells to the dying, and mourning for the dead.” Twenty-seven famous deaths in Paris during the mouth of October—statesmen, men of letters, actors, singers and artists. Of these the best known to us were Maurice Strakosch, the impresario, and Marie Aimee, the lyric actress.

As for the poor old members or the French Institute, it will be a wonder if all of them are not carried off with having to go shivering to funerals, and to stand bare-headed in the mud and rain. Steely, slippery people, these French, but they have one soft side–their veneration for the dead. You are on top of an omnibus in Paris; perhaps the day is frosty, windy and rainy all at once. Suddenly every man in sight doffs his hat and keeps it in hand a good minute or two; the driver on his seat, the passing cabbies on their perches, the fares within the cabs, the pedestrians, the passengers on the omnibus and those within it, the young and the old, the hairy and the bald; at the same time the women in sight, all, from the vendor of newspapers on the sidewalk to the Countess in her carriage, cross themselves, and you see their lips move in prayer. It is a passing funeral, perhaps of the very humblest kind; but ail are equal, and here equally respected, in death.

You pass before a house; the big door leading Into the court-yard is draped in great black curtains with silver bands and fringe; within the curtains a draped coffin rests on trestle; a basin of holy water with a silver sprinkler is at hand; flowers are on the coffin, and beside it sits a mourner. In the street no vehicle goes by that the driver does not lift his hat, no pedestrian comes along who does not keep his hat off until the house is passed. The women cross themselves and pray, and many, both men and women, perhaps perfect strangers to the deceased, enter, sprinkle some holy water on the coffin, say a little prayer for the departed soul’s repose, and hurry on about their business. They do it unconsciously, sometimes mechanically, but for all that it’s a very pretty custom.

I remember hearing F. M. Boggs, the American artist, tell that in his house in Montmartre, one of the artist quarters of Paris, the leases stipulated that there were to be no funerals in the hallway. They called the tenants “the immortals,” because it was forbidden to die there. The landlords who make such stipulations are, however, held in some repugnance by the people who believe that a mere mortal landlord has no right to come between them and such stray prayers as might help them out of purgatory.

It may be that modern France is atheistic, but you would never think so to see the way that saints’ days and holy days are universally observed. On Hallowe’en I was surprised to see my dressmaker ushered in about 8 in the evening While the bells of St. Clotilde were ringing out for service.

“I must fit you this evening instead of tomorrow, ‘ said she, “for to-morrow is All Saints’ Day.”

“Why not the day after, Madame Lenet?” I asked.

“The day after, Madame, is equally impossible. That is the day of the dead, All Souls’ Day.”

And so it goes the year round, you never know when you are going to stumble on a holiday. As for the banks, impossible to know when you may have to go without money and wait for your letters, they are always closing on one pretext or another. It is only the cabs and restaurants that are always with us in Paris; and on July 14th the cabs are suppressed, no wheels roll on the asphalt that day, people dance quadrilles in the street and prince and peasant alike walk home when all is over.

Of all these festivals the Day of the Dead is not least interesting.

“Tell me. Madame Lenet,” I said to the dressmaker, “how will you pass that day?”

“Well, madame, my husband, he is my second husband, is employed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. On that day he will have a holiday. We will take our morning coffee, go to mass, come home to breakfast, and then dress to go to the cemetery. We will carry some wreaths and pots of plants and with them decorate my first husband’s grave and my daughter’s. When we have said our prayers at the graves we will then visit the tombs of our friends and for those we most loved we leave a little wreath or a bunch of immortelles.

“And after that, what do you do?”

“Oh, after that we visit the tombs of celebrated men. You know there are some superb ones to visit; and then, too, there are the splendid soldiers’ monuments, which are always worth seeing.”

“And this year,” she continued, with an appreciative smack of the lips, “I shall see where Pranzini the murderer was buried. You know they dug him up and made card-cases of his skin–but still I shall see where he was buried. And then, too, I want to visit the graves of those who perished in the Opera Comique fire; that is very interesting.”

“And I suppose you want to see the new crematory at Pere Lachaise cemetery?”

“Oh, I shall see it, of course, but I think it’s very dreadful. Mon Dieu, it doesn’t seem like Christian burial.”

“Which day do you go, on All Souls’ Day or All Saints’ Day?”

“Oh, I shall go on both. But if madame wants to go, she had best go on All Souls’ Day. You see, All Saints’ Day is a holiday observed by all classes, but there are a few who do not keep All Souls’ Day. The crowd on the first will be something terrible.”

That settled it. I wanted to see the crowd, and determined to go on the first.

So, on the first, behold us bundled into a rickety cab, the last one at the stand, and plodding along past the groaning omnibuses to Pere Lachaise. What is this? We are stopped by the police. “No carriages allowed beyond the Boulevard Voltaire,” and it is a good fifteen minutes’ walk by the Boulevard de la Roquette. Fifteen minutes! we are lucky if we make it in an hour. The Boulevard de la Roquette, a straight broad street leading to the big gate of Pere Lachaise, is one solid black mass of humanity, garlic-fed humanity, as we learn later.

We leave the grinding crash of arrested cabs on the Boulevard Voltaire and join the rear ranks of the army of mourners. In fifteen minutes we have had enough. Impossible to make any headway; the crowd is stationary. The weather is cold; we never did like funerals; we decide to go home. We turn. Lo and behold! we have unconsciously traveled half a block. The crowd behind us is as solid as the one in front. We are in for it, and must go to Pere Lachaise willy-nilly.

The police are numerous, the crowd quiet and orderly, no danger to be apprehended, and I amuse myself with my neighbors.

The young man with his elbow in my stomach is probably a medical student; first because he knows how to put his elbow just where it hurts the most; second, because his trousers are short, his overcoat shabby, his face intellectual and his hat an Irish beaver with a straight brim; third, because there is another just like him, and they have only one girl between them–all well-known trademarks, though why nor wherefore I cannot tell.

The girt, who blushes and simpers prettily, has a red and purple wreath in one hand, and in the other a small pot of pink chrysanthemums with a big white paper round it. She is a milliner’s or dressmaker’s apprentice, first because she wears no hat or cap, just her heavy black hair coquettishly knotted on top of her head, second because her cheap black dress is stylishly made and her whole get-up trim and tidy.

By my side walks a well-dressed middle-aged man with a dim, retrospective eye, and stretching out from him hand in hand his four boys, all little chaps and all with wreaths.

Some are rich and some are poor; some in crepe and some in colors; some weeping, some flirting; some bickering among themselves and some laughing.

Suddenly there is a chorus of ohs and ahs, a ripple of annoyance runs through the compact ranks. It is a vendor who is making his way by main force, selling plans of Pere Lachaise with all the principal monuments designated for two cents. The people buy them right and left. It is evident that most of them have come for pleasure as well as pain, and that they intend to combine pious duty with sight-seeings.

Save for the space occupied by the two prisoners of La Roquette—the prisons that lately held Pranzini, and where his unworthy head was chopped off–the Boulevard de la Roquette is lined on either side with  shops for the sale of funeral wreaths and emblems, and in every doorway there is an itinerant vendor of the same. In the long standstills the vendors cry their wares lustily, and those people who are near the sidewalk buy; it is impossible for the others to move.

Beaded French immortelles or funeral wreath.

The French like their funeral wreaths strong. They make them of colored beads strung on wires, of artificial flowers, of solid-woven immortelles. They are strong in color, too. A toothless old dame wanted to sell me a gigantic circlet of red plush, with a bow of white crape to hang it by. In beads the etiquette is black, and black with purple for old people; blue. white, or blue and white, for young ones. The immortelles run riot. There are wreaths of brilliant purple and scarlet, purple and orange, red and yellow and plain golden yellow.

Strange that in Paris, the very center of modern art, these people who so love their dead and, by the way, are so coolly rapacious with the living, should heap crude hideousness upon the tomb. The bead work of the North American Indian is a revelation in art compared to the stuff that fills the Paris graveyard.

Imagine a common, naked china doll, about four inches long, swinging in an oval frame of blue beads and overhung by a stiff-wired weeping willow in white beads. Fancy, under glass, a pair of hands, such, as confectioners put on wedding cakes, with a screaming frame of blue and purple beads. Conceive of all these crude, ugly colors piled in family vaults, laid upon gray-stone tombs, or hung on pothooks around a grave! For to the graves we come eventually, after a good hour of—

“Here you are, ladies; this way, gentlemen. Beautiful tokens of affection from 1 franc up. Choose; now is your time; they’re going fast.”

Or: “Over here; over here. Who wants a porter? Buy some wreaths and I will carry them.”

Or: “The pla-a-a-a-an of Pere Lachaise. Instead of 10 cents, going for two-o-o.”

Or: “Guide, guide; any one want a guide? Just beckon to me. If yon want to see the celebrated tombs of Pere Lacha-a-a-a-aise.”

Or: “Barley sugar, barley sugar. Beautiful sticks of barley sugar for 1 ce-e-n-eut.”

Or: “Sausages, delightful sausages, taste them; only three cents for a lovely piece of sausage flavored with ga-a-arlic!”

Or: “Here you are. A pot of immortelles in nice white paper for ten ce-e-ents!”

Drifting slowly inch by inch into the great gate where we come at last to elbow room, very little to be sore, but enough to be thankful for. Into Pere Lachaise with its 110 acres of marvelous memories. Upon this tract of land, once the country seat of Father Lachaise, Louis XlVth’s Jesuit confessor, since the year 1804 there have been monuments raised to over 20,000 famous people. The value of the works of art that here embellish tombs and family vaults is something over $20,000,000.

Of the eighty to one hundred burials that daily take place in Paris Pere Lachaise now receives but very few, and those chiefly the wealthy or the famous. Like the cab fares the Paris funeral tariff is regulated by law and, exclusive of religious ceremonies, interments, or “funeral displays” as the French more properly term them, cost from $250 to $l,500. A grave which shall remain undisturbed for ten years costs $30, and the same in perpetuity $100.

As far as I can learn there is no speculation in buying plots here, nor any asking of fancy prices for special locations. It seems to be a case of “first come, first served.”

Once more I look around this wondrous territory of Pere Lachaise, and walk its paths, jostled by the present and bewildered by the past. It is probably, take it all in all, the ugliest God’s acre of any pretensions in the world. Its wondrous artistic, financial and historical wealth appeal to the intellect but leave the eye and heart untouched. Few trees, fewer vines. and no flowers, save the sickly ones that wither here and there in little common pots.

With all its wealth, with all its art, it is cold, hard and commercial as a counter in a hardware shop. When I think of the gracious beauty of Greenwood Cemetery, the romantic loveliness of our Laurel Hill the wind-swept, fog-wreathed dignity and pathos of dear old Mountain, it seems to me that these Frenchmen may know how to live and how to die, but they don’t know how to be buried. And it is not that facilities are lacking, for flowers are cheaper in Paris than in New York, or even San Francisco; and French gardeners the most accomplished in the world. The superb bronzes of Pere Lachaise would fairly speak if you could see them against a background of green; the checker-board collection of family vaults would melt into harmony if their angles were broken with ivy; even the humblest graves would seem to offer some hope of resurrection with the heaven-turned faces of flowers to point the way. But the statues are cheapened with hideous beads; the graves weighed down with their hard, cold glitter, and in the bare family vaults wax candles make a blot upon the precious sunlight.

Ugh! It must be cold comfort to lie in a French grave.

Next day we learn from the Figaro that 348,280 people visited the nineteen cemeteries of Paris on All Saints’ Day, and that your correspondent was only one of 56,500 who went to Pere Lachaise.

On All Souls’ Day I went to Mont Parnasse cemetery, more hideous, if possible, than Pere Lachaise. There I saw people really weeping and praying at the tombs, unconscious of surroundings and absorbed in the luxury of grief. There also I saw a long line of little schoolboys go up and deposit a great wreath at the foot of a broken granite column. There were already many wreaths there, and it was difficult to make room for this final one. When it was placed, all who were near stood still a little while in silent prayer. I saw some poor old people sobbing, and some with streaming eyes raised to the column.

This monument, which finds a place in every French cemetery, is called “The Monument of Remembrance,” and is dedicated to the unnumbered and unknown dead.

At Pere Lachaise it was like a circus. People fought to get into the chapel, where each visitor is supposed to say a prayer. And they stood, laughing in line, waiting to look through the grating of the new and splendid mortuary chapel to Thiers. Balzac was deserted, no one looked at de Musset, Rachel, the great actress, had one wreath and Desclee had two. Not a bead for the Duc de Morny, and Chopin, Moliere, Beranger, Cuvier, Coeot and many others were deserted.

I saw one tomb swarming with people, and tried to penetrate the crowd, but impossible.

“Tell me, what is it?” I asked a woman standing by.

“That, madame. is the tomb of a woman, a curious case in midwifery. It always makes a great hit every year.”

Impossible also to get near the tomb of two aeronauts who once came down too suddenly from a balloon, and lie there side by side in bronze. A great success, too, the painted image, with wings, of a little girl who died the day of her first communion. It is in a glass case, and in front of the case the little girl’s dolly, dressed in communion dress, holds a lighted taper.

No one ever leaves Pere Lachaise without a look at Abelard and Heloise. The lovers, separated in life, lie side by side under a great stone canopy in death. Their popularity is inexhaustible. And I saw giggling lovers come and throw them wreaths and wish them luck after seven hundred years of decay.


 The San Francisco [CA] Examiner 27 November 1887: p. 10

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.