One unusual way to soak up some local culture when you visit a new French village is to explore the local cemetery. From the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its celebrity inhabitants to the tiny local village church it is one way to learn about the place you’re visiting and the people who have lived there as this ghastly, ghostly tale from Goult shows…
France is a treasure-trove of cemeteries. Even the tiniest villages have at least a few gravestones clustered around the church; bigger villages boast larger cemeteries, if not by the church then at least within walking distance from it. If the gate is open, I always take a few moments to wander and read the tombstones. I love getting a feel for the names of local families. I’ve been told this is a bit strange, but sometimes I come home with a great tale to tell.
Like the story that came from a tombstone engraving in the cemetery of tiny Goult in the Luberon Valley. Sandwiched between the more popular tourist villages of Gordes, Roussillon, Menerbes and Bonneiux, it’s my favorite place to stay in the area because it isn’t teeming with visitors. As I wandered through its cemetery one lovely September afternoon, I came across a tall grave monument inscribed with the names of three people…a father, mother and daughter…all assassinated on 14 July 1900. That night at dinner, I asked my French friend, Patrick, if he knew the story behind that epitaph. He was surprised that the monument even existed. Even though, he had lived in the village many years (and in fact, his mother was buried there) he had never walked around the cemetery. Reinforcing in my mind that maybe wandering around cemeteries is truly a bit odd!
Here’s the story he told me which he backed up with a magazine article written about the event a few years ago.
Hilarion Gregoire, age 48, was a local farmer who became involved in village politics. He was elected mayor and was also a regional councilor. He was married to Pauline, age 50 and had a daughter, Marie Margarite, age 24. Marie was known as one of the prettiest girls in the village and had quite a reputation as a coquette. All the single men seemed to be in love with her, yet she accepted no one’s offer of marriage. The fourth person in the drama that was to unfold was Jean-Baptiste Allemand called by villagers “Le Tite,” Thirty-four years old, unmarried and odd, Le Tite pursued all the eligible young village women, but each scorned his advances. He became the subject of the jokes and laughter of the villagers. Marie Gregoire seemed his last chance. But she, too, rejected him, laughing at his offer of marriage. He withdrew into himself, becoming more and more silent and menacing. One could see him skulking around the village; people avoided him whenever possible.
No one knows for certain what happened that day to trigger his rage. It was 14 July 1900, a day of celebration throughout France as the new century unfolded. A day off work for everyone. A day to spend eating and celebrating with family. And in Goult, it was also a day of music. As was customary, the village band was playing in the square in front of the Chateau by nine in the morning. It was there that Le Tite suddenly appeared, knife in hand, and began attacking anyone within reach. Screams of terror! Blood! Confusion and panic! Before he was subdued by the village men, Le Tite had cut nine people with his vicious knife including a twelve year old child. He had fatally stabbed Marie Gregoire in the back and her mother, Pauline, and her father, Hilarion in the stomach multiple times. While the others were only wounded, all three Gregoires died by nightfall.
Le Tite was himself cut by the knife during his capture. By one in the morning, the magistrates from Apt arrived to hear Le Tite’s testimony and mete out justice. Le Tite, however, was dying. He would not respond to questions except to growl “I will talk when I am dead!” At ten o’clock, he died. The next day his body was carried to a hidden corner of the countryside and buried in an unmarked grave.
The bodies of the Gregoire family were laid out in their home as villagers came to pay their respects and mourn. At their funeral Mass in the Notre Dame des Lumieres church down the hill, dignitaries from throughout the region extolled their virtues and accomplishments. Slowly, slowly the terror of that day faded and the sad, confused village returned to normal. But never would it forget that day of carnage.
Patrick finished his story as we finished our meal. Quite a story it was…who would think such a horrible event had occurred in this sleepy village? “And,” he said in closing, “this house was the mayor’s house. This is where they brought the blood-soaked bodies of the Gregoires and where the village gathered to mourn.” I looked around at the old stone walls and wondered what they had witnessed. I couldn’t help shivering just a little.
Who knows what stories you might discover when you explore an old French cemetery?
By Evelyn Jackson