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April 3, 2021

The Art of Death by Dr. Kaylee Alexander

The Art of Death by Dr. Kaylee Alexander

Death might be permanent, but resting places are not. Learn about the unique way French people died by Dr. Kaylee Alexander.


Gary Girod: Today’s special episode is by Dr. Kaylee Alexander. Dr. Alexander earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, having defended her dissertation in February of 2021. Specializing primarily in nineteenth-century visual culture, Kaylee’s research interests include funerary material culture and the cultural economics of death and burial in France and the United States. She currently serves on the board of the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art and is an editorial board member for the Collective for Radical Death Studies’ blog. Today, Dr. Alexander will talk about death, burial and conflicts over art in Parisian cemeteries.

Dr. Alexander: In February 2021 ArtNews published an article lamenting the impending removal of the beloved Constantin Brancusi sculpture from Cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.

The sculpture in question was the 1909 version of The Kiss that was erected over the grave of Tatiana Rachevskaïa, a Russian student who committed suicide in 1910. The Kiss, a version of which was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show) in 1913, is one of Brancusi’s most well-known works and was produced in a number of versions (both limestone and plaster). The first version was produced in 1907, and presently resides in the collection of the Craiova Art Museum in the artist’s native Romania. Significantly more geometric than naturalistic in form, the various versions of The Kiss depict an increasingly abstracted and symbolic representation of a couple locked in a romantic embrace.

The Montparnasse version had been placed over Rachevskaïa’s grave shortly after her burial by her lover, a Romanian doctor (Solomon Marbais) who had purchased the work directly from Brancusi.

For over a century The Kiss has been a popular highlight for tourists visiting the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, but the beloved sculpture has been “off-view” so to speak since 2017, when it was covered with a simple wooden box, presumably the result of the legal battles that have surrounded the sculpture for nearly a decade. The battle for the sculpture’s ownership arose when the decedents of Rachevskaïa tried to reclaim the sculpture and were contested by cemetery officials who claimed it was cemetery property due to its status as an object of cultural patrimony.

After nearly a decade of legal battles, the court ruled in December 2020 that it was indeed the property of the decedents, not the cemetery of Montparnasse. This decision relied on an interpretation of the law as to whether the sculpture was intended as a grave marker or not. If yes, it was legally the property of the decedents.

As someone studying the impermanence of burial and funerary monuments Parisian cemeteries, this story really piqued my interest; in fact the ArtNews article came out just a couple of days before my doctoral defense, and so it seemed too timely not to weigh in on this issue. The cemeteries of Paris—and particularly places like PL, Montparnasse and Montmartre—are often regarded more as these open-air museums where one can encounter great works of nineteenth- and early 20th century sculpture. They make appearances in nearly every guidebook for Paris, not to mention the countless guidebooks dedicated just to the cemeteries. When you arrive you are met with a map showing the locations of all the highlights of the cemetery, not unlike the clearly marked signs of the Louvre Museum that take you right to the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo. The fact that these sites are burial grounds seems almost secondary when we visit them and talk about them today, and millions of people have been buried in places like Père-Lachaise since its opening in 1804.

The case of the Brancusi was particularly striking to me because French burials, and their accompanying monuments, were very rarely intended to be permanent structures in the first place. The Brancusi probably shouldn’t have even been there as long as it has since Rachevskaïa does not seem to have been buried in a perpetual plot—in fact, relatively very few people were ever buried in perpetual plots, which accounted for less than six percent of burials in the nineteenth century and were eliminated in the 1920s. So, like so many others in France, Rachevskaïa’s grave in Montparnasse was only ever intended to be a temporary resting place.

For Americans in particular, the idea of temporary burial typically comes as a shock. We are accustomed to purchasing burial plots where our remains are intended to rest in perpetuity—or at least that is the myth we’re sold and, of course, there are countless examples of cemetery abandonment and exhumation in the US for a variety of reasons that we won’t get into here. For some reason however we’re not supposed to consider that we might be dug up one day, whereas in France—and many other countries for that matter—the temporary nature of burial is something that comes with the territory so to speak. And burial in France has really never been anything but temporary except in rare cases where either the deceased or the funerary marker has been granted some status as cultural patrimony.

But to begin to understand the trouble with French cemeteries and the irony of the Brancusi in Montparnasse, we have to go back to the end of the 18th century.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the burial situation in Paris had become so dire that the cemeteries were seen as a significant threat to public health. The churchyard, and none more famously than the centrally-located Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, had become so overcrowded that the recently deceased could no-longer be sufficiently buried, and the noxious odors emanating from the churchyard were blamed for a variety of troubles. In February of 1780, a series of incidents provoked what one medical professional called “a most considerable alarm.” A fresh burial pit had been dug in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, along the wall that paralleled the rue de la Lingerie, and the stench had become nearly unbearable. Reports of spoiled wine and mysterious illnesses were attributed to the foul smells emerging from the cemetery, which after centuries of overuse, had become severely overcrowded and exhausted. Founded in the 12th century, the centrally-located Holy Innocents cemetery was, by this time, serving the populations of 20 different parishes, as well as the nearby hospital and jail. So many people had been buried there that some accounts even claimed that the ground level had been raised by some 8 feet since the cemetery’s founding. The threats and smells of the cemetery, however, were nothing new in 1780, although the opening of this new pit would prove to be the final straw. In the following May, a portion of the cemetery wall collapsed into one of the neighboring houses, spilling corpses into the cellar. This incident would ultimately prompt the end of churchyard burials in France.

The immediate result was that all of the churchyards within the city of Paris were, by royal decree, closed to future burials; in 1786, the city would begin the process of removing the cemeteries and transforming these spaces for public use. The Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, for example, became a prominent marketplace, and is today a popular public square known as the Place Joachim du Bellay. The remains that were exhumed from Paris’s churchyards were transferred to the abandoned medieval quarries beneath the city over the next few decades. These quarries would, by 1809, become known the Catacombs of Paris (a portion of which is a has been a popular tourist attraction since the final decades of the 19th century). Although various temporary solutions to the city’s burial troubles would be proposed and implemented throughout the 1780s and 90s, it would not be until 1804 that a more permanent burial solution would be set into law.

On June 12th of that year Napoleon issued his Imperial Decree on Burials from the Palace of Saint Cloud (also known as the Decree of 23 prairial year 12 (according to the Republican calendar. This decree instituted a highly regulated system of burial throughout the French Empire that, with relatively few changes, has remained the legal foundation of French burial practices to this day.

A key aspect of this decree was the prohibition on burials within public buildings or within the city limits. Thus, new cemeteries needed to be established beyond the city, and those already existing at a proper distance needed to be altered to comply with new burial standards. These new standards included a provision that all burials take place in separate plots, with standardized sizing, and that each plot remain untouched for at least five years. This meant that everyone, regardless of class or religion, would be entitled to an individual burial plot, a stark contrast from the mass graves of the early-Modern period.

Yet, one was only entitled to a plot for five years, unless one purchased a concession. Initially issued in just two options—temporary or perpetual—concessions transformed graves into private territory for a set period of time. Therefore, those of some means could afford to purchase a temporary concession, while high-status individuals could purchase plots intended to last in perpetuity. The price difference was substantial, meaning that only a small fraction of Paris’s population would have ever been able to afford a permanent resting place. Thus, the vast majority of burials and their attendant monuments were, from conception, only temporary.

So, before we can even begin to talk about funerary monuments in famous cemeteries like Père-Lachaise or Montparnasse, it is critical that we first understand survival bias and its relationship to the cemetery. Survival bias is the logical error that results from concentrating on people or things that have passed some selection process, and, consequently, overlooking those that did not. In the case of French cemeteries, survival bias results largely from this concession system in which only the tombs of the most elite could have attained a perpetual status. This has resulted in a heavily curated cemetery that functions more as a museum than as a place of burial, where some works—mostly those of the elite or those tombs deemed culturally significant—are carefully preserved, while others are quietly deaccessioned.

But what are these works that have been removed en masse from the cemetery over the past two hundred years? Who made them and who’s graves did they commemorate? Although we tend to know a lot about the sculptors and architects who have left their mark in the cemeteries of Paris, very little is known about those who produced tombstones for the middle and lower segments of the funerary monuments market, and much of this overlooked history of the funerary stonecutters (or, marbriers, as they are known in French) is due to both the systematic removal of the markers for expired tombs over time as well as the stigmatization of the marbrier that began already in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Part of what the Napoleonic Decree on Burials of 1804 did was radically transform how non-elites were buried. Because everyone now had the universal right to a distinct burial plot, their loved ones were also granted the freedom to mark those graves in whichever way they saw fit and could afford. So what we see at the beginning of the 19th century is a significant increase in demand for funerary monuments, especially among those who prior to 1804 would most likely have ended up in a mass grave. Not surprisingly, then, we also see a rapidly developing market for affordable tombstones during this time .

Ironically, though, as more people gained the ability to purchase funerary monuments distrust and resentment towards the marbrier, and even his middle-class clients also grew.

Citing how marbriers were known to follow people to the town hall as they went to declare deaths; or stalk mourners in churches and cemeteries hoping to “obstinately offer their services to them,” the Ordonnance of February 4, 1853 enacted prohibited marbriers from advertising to mourners in public spaces. This ordinance was the culmination of nearly a half century of mounting concerns over the predatory behavior of marbriers.

Already by the 1830s, the marbrier had become an unlikeable character. Reflecting the concerns that ultimately lead to the 1853 ordonnace, satirical depictions of the marbrier continually cautioned the public against his manipulative practices and insensitivities. Likewise, the monuments he produced were criticized for profaning the cemeteries of Paris.

One of the earliest, and likely the most widely consumed, image of the marbrier comes from the caricaturist Honoré Daumier, famous primarily for his lithographic works critiquing various aspects of Parisian life. Daumier’s version of a funerary marbrier, which was included in his 1836 Caricaturana, also appeared publically in an 1837 issue of the satirical journal Le Charivari.

Casting the marbrier as the archetypical swindler, Robert Macaire, Daumier titled his print “Un homme sensible…à juste prix” – A sensitive man at fair prices and in this scene he establishes the marbrier as one who seeks to improve his own status by preying on the grieving to make a quick sale. Clenching a handkerchief in one hand and an invoice in the other, Daumier depicts the marbrier coming to pay his respects to a grieving mother, who, judging by the interior furnishings of her home, is a woman of some means. Beneath the image, the following dialogue has been included to frame the scene:

– Alas! Madame, you have had the misfortune of losing Monsieur your son…
– Ah! Monsieur…
– What do you expect, Madame, we are all mortal! …He was such an honorable man, Monsieur your son…
– A child of four years, so beautiful, so nice! …But, Monsieur, to whom do I have the honor of speaking?
– Madame, I am a marbrier, and I have come to offer you a mausoleum; I make them at all prices and, as I strongly sympathize with your grief, I would be very glad to work for you, Madame.
(He is shown the door.)

Here, Daumier derides the marbrier, who unapologetically jumps at the opportunity to advertise his services to those in the most vulnerable of positions, even a grieving mother. The marbrier’s intrusion in this family matter is all the more problematic given the intimate setting. This scene does not take place at the cemetery or the church; this is the family home, and the mother is still in her nightdress. Overcome with grief, she is somewhat slow to realize the marbrier’s intentions, as if still shocked by the death of her son. One imagines that not much time has passed between the boy’s death and the marbrier’s visit.

The marbrier was also a recurring character in brief vignettes of Parisian life published in satirical journals such as the Journal Amusant. Pierre Véron, the then editor-in-chief of the journal, included the marbrier on at least five occasions in his column “Chronique parisienne.” In one example, from the October 14, 1876 issue, the narrator is walking through the neighborhood of the cemetery when he overhears a marbrière chatting with her daughter. “Well, yes, said the mother, you will have a dress to go to the ball…but, All Saints Day needs to provide.” In another, from the October 2, 1897 issue, the narrator is reminded of the time, while walking in the vicinity of Montparnasse cemetery, that he overheard a marbrier talking to his friends. One of the men asks, “Well, and your daughter? She is not getting married?” “Alas! No…,” the marbrier replies before continuing, after a long sigh, “I had counted on a cholera outbreak to finish off a nice dowry for her, and unfortunately epidemics are becoming so rare!” The narrator then adds that after this remark, the marbrier seemed as though he might burst into tears.

As much as the marbrier was cast as self-interested, the monuments he produced, too, were of questionable taste. One satirist noted how funerary monuments could be used to advertise the businesses of the living. Though writing in jest, these types of inscriptions were very real. Records for the tomb of Adélaïde Roussel, for example, who died in 1814 account for her monument’s inscription which read “Here lies Adélaïde Roussel, died May 17th, 1814, aged 21, wife of J.E. Letourneau, lemonade seller, rue du Temple, at the corner of rue Michel-Lecomte.” In such instances, the funerary monument became an opportunity to promote those left behind by placing more emphasis on the businesses of those who had presumably paid for the monument than those who were buried beneath them.

Negative characterizations of marbriers and popular monuments were also expressed in architectural volumes such as those by Jean Boussard and César Daly. Emphasizing the genius of architects, whom they saw as uniquely suited to designing appropriate funerary structures, these authors decried the developing popular market and the commercialization of the cemetery. While the cemetery had ostensibly been corrupted by commercial practices and selfish inscriptions that glorified the living, increasing the presence of architectural works was proposed as a solution to the cemetery’s decline as well as to the dilution of class-based exclusivity by commercially-produced, and presumably ‘off-the-peg,’ rather than bespoke, tombstones.

Interestingly enough, and this is what much of my current research deals with, the tombs that the marbriers produced were very rarely ready-made, and were in fact quite customizable, allowing for a wide variety of design choices at nearly any price point.

Burial records available through the Archives de Paris indicate that Rachewskaïa was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery on December 13, 1910 in a fosse (rather than a caveau, which typically indicates a perpetual plot). It seems logical to assume that Rachewskaïa’s grave was never intended to last as long as it has. Yet, the presence of the Brancusi has, at least thus far, protected her gravesite from removal. Whether or not Rachewskaïa’s plot will remain intact once the Brancusi is removed, I would imagine, will also be up for debate.

The irony of this situation, of course, is that monuments (and the dead) have always been removed from cemeteries like Montparnasse regularly. We just don’t seem to care unless that monument has a name like Brancusi attached to it.

So on that note, I’d like to leave you all with a one piece of advice. The next time you take a trip to Père-Lachaise or any of the other major cemeteries of Paris, definitely make sure to tick off those famous graves on your list, but also take a moment to just consider all of the history that we’re not seeing today.