In a seldom visited corner of Paris, near Place de la Nation in the 12th arrondissement, is Picpus Cemetery, one of the city’s most unusual burial grounds – the last resting place of a hero of the American Revolution and victims of the French Revolution, a plot where the history of France is preserved…
Here, between June 14th and July 27th, 1794, 1306 people who were executed during the French Revolution were buried. The beheadings had by this time become extreme and many innocent people were killed on ridiculous grounds. Amongst the condemned were 16 Carmelite nuns, all singing as they were led to the scaffold; one-by-one, there were led up the steps to the block, singing until the very end. “The Terror” only stopped when Maximillien Robespierre, a major influence during the time of the French Revolution and alleged to be the main instigator of the executions, was himself beheaded.
A guillotine had been set up at Place du Trone-Renverse, today Place de la Nation, a short walk away. Corpses had been thrown into two hastily dug graves at the bottom of the garden of a former convent. The families of some of the victims later bought the property, built a chapel and solicited a religious order, the Sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, to offer up prayers for the victims.
This is how Picpus Cemetery came to be one of two private cemeteries in Paris which has many tombs of French aristocracy and to this day in fact, only decendants of the victims can be buried here. Today you can still see a small portion of the original wooden fence that had once enclosed the graves, as well as the original entrance for the carts bringing the bodies. You can visit the chapel where the names, ages, and some occupations can be found engraved on the huge plaques on either side of the altar at the front of the church. In the cemetery itself, which lies behind the chapel, there are some beautiful tombs though many are worn away with age.
The tomb of Marquis de Lafayette
One tomb is of particular importance to American visitors, this is the burial site for the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution. His grave is maintained by a local chapter of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and an American flag is always flown. Relatives of his wife were executed and buried here so she wished to be as well and he followed her on. He helped America during its Revolution and asked that soil from Bunker Hill be put on his grave. A ceremony is held at his graveside every July 4th often attended by the American Ambassador.
While Lafayette and his family survived the terror of his country’s own revolution, many of his wife’s family did not. And since a prerequisite to be buried at Picpus is having a family member perish on the guillotine that cruel summer of 1794, he and his wife rest near the entrance to the mass grave area.
It can be a hard place to find as the grounds lie behind two plain brown doors at 35 rue Picpus. Admission costs two euros and you will be directed toward the chapel where the names, ages, and some occupations can be found engraved on the walls on either side of the altar at the front of the church. In the cemetery itself, which lies behind the chapel, are some beautiful tombs, many of them worn with age.
It’s worth a visit to this quiet and often forgotten place. Another corner of Paris where a portion of French history is preserved.
The cemetery hours are erratic and unpredictable. Generally, Picpus is open Tuesday-Sunday, often from 2-6, mid-April to August. From October to mid-April it is open 2-4. There is no website but you can phone to check that it is open: 01 43 44 18 54. Nearest metro: Picpus and Nation.
It is closed on holidays, Mondays and during September as well as for the US Fourth of July celebration when there is usually a ceremony attended by the US ambassador.
Read about the incredible project to build a replica ship of the one on which the Marquis de Lafayette sailed to America: Hermione – the French ship that helped to win America’s freedom
Linda Mathieu, a native Texan, lives in France with her French husband. She was a Paris Tour Guide and is the author of Secrets of a Paris Tour Guide, available at www.amazon.com.