Cemeteries: le champ de repos

Rapport sur les sépultures, présenté à l’administration centrale du département de la Seine
Jacques Cambry et Jacques Molinas
Paris, France
48° 53′ 13″ N, 2° 20′ 35″ E
1799

Following his appointment as administrator of the department of the Seine in Paris in 1799, Jacques Cambry discovered the Parisian cemeteries in an appalling state. He then published a report augmented by an urban and architectural proposal. This came in a context favourable to the evolution of the Parisian cemeteries.

The Western Europe of the 18th century saw a paradigm shift concerning cemeteries. Religiously linked to the churches, new cemeteries are progressively opened at the gates of the cities. The new hygiene measures and successive cholera epidemics accelerate this change. The transitions in the administration of cemeteries then takes place, religious power gives way to municipal authority. In France, before the French Revolution of 1789, cemeteries were already moved outside the towns. In addition, measures had been taken to surround them with walls and to prohibit the digging of wells nearby. Following a royal decree of 10 March 1776 invoking reasons of public health, burials in churches (with of course exceptions for a privileged few) were now forbidden. Gradually the cemetery is the imposed model. The place of prayer and visitation to the dead replaces the place of life placed at the centre of the community of the living.

Later, the French regime will continue this change of model. Henceforth, the ownership of the parish cemeteries was transferred to the commune and the cemeteries became public. Other decrees were issued, notably that of 23 Prairial an XII (1804), which codified the confessional sectorisation of French cemeteries, including religious minorities. The cemeteries were also reorganized in tranches with 5-year concessions. Then the bodies are decomposed enough to be transferred to a mass grave. Thereafter, long and perpetual family concessions will develop and lead to the model of current French cemeteries.

It is in a context following the end of the first revolutionary period that the appointment of Jacques Cambry took place. He is a French writer and high-ranking civil servant, very much influenced by classical and ancient culture, used to long study trips in Europe. In 1799 he was commissioned by the administration of the Seine department to write a report on the cemeteries of Paris. Jacques Cambry visited them all and came away stunned. The report that emerges from it is organised in several parts.
First of all, he shares his experience of the different European societies. He paints an extremely critical picture of the disastrous state of these cemeteries and the way they function: “I spare your sensitivity the picture I could paint. No people, no era shows man after his death in such cruel abandonment.” He also shares his culture of civilizations, giving a historical account of funerary traditions.
He then proposed a profound renewal of the way in which burials are conceived. “Respect for the dead has more to do with social order than is commonly thought”. The text is followed by a draft decree of the department of the Seine on burials. It is followed by the project, consisting of nine plates designed by the architect Jacques Molinos. This project is a real urban and architectural plan, strongly marked by Antiquity, and defining the creation of a new place called le champ de repos ( the field of rest). Starting from an idea on the respect of the dead, both philosophical and sociological, he proposed the establishment of a cemetery on the hill of Montmartre (which was then outside the walls of Paris) with walls, gates and pyramid.

This project was supposed to convert Montmartre Mountain, a historic place of worship, into a cemetery. It will never be realized but the place will be used almost a century later for the construction of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris.

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