Review of Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830

Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830
Erin-Marie Legacey

Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2019
210 pp., illus. 16 b/w; Trade, $36.95
ISBN: 978-1-5017-1559-4.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
September 2019

A couple of months ago, I had the chance to read the 2500 pages of Jules Michelet’s History of the French Revolution (1847), still the cornerstone of all historiographical writing on the Revolution (although heavily criticized by today’s historians, who struggle with Michelet’s project of an empathic and ideologically very biased reconstruction of the Revolution from within, day after day) but also a great work of literature (and in that sense a useful if not necessary complement to the ultimate masterpiece that is Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1848-1850). One of the most striking themes that run through this monumental work is that of the Parisian cemeteries, whose “management” had become almost impossible, with often unbearable consequences for the Parisians, during these exceptional years.

What this actually means is wonderfully explained in Making Space for the Dead, a book that will make a deep and long-lasting impact on the cultural history of the French Revolution (and beyond, for 1789 is a never ending story), as inspiring and thought-provoking as that other great book on the same macabre aspects of the Revolution, Daniel Arrasse’s The Guillotine and the Terror (1989, French original: 1987). Yet what Erin-Marie Legacey is doing in this book is much more than just making explicit what was left implicit in Michelet’s account. The ambition of her study is double. First of all, to explain the technical and material aspects of cemeteries and funerary practices in the years before, during and after the French Revolution – hence the chronological span of the book, 1780-1830, which can be read as a fan opening on both sides of the Terror years, 1793-1794. Second, and more decisively, to propose a cultural reading of the changes that take place throughout these five decades. We do of course not lack works on the Revolutionary events and their cultural signification, but for some strange reason, even the best studies pay little attention to the topic of the cemetery, in spite of its ubiquity in all contemporary accounts and the existence of extremely rich but hardly researched specialized archives. Erin-Marie Legacey’s book is mainly the result of this archival research in Paris, which helps her fill in important gaps in our knowledge of the French Revolution.

The structure of the book is crystal-clear, as is the writing (yes, this is a page-turner and a wonderful example of a great academic read that, given the universal relevance of the French Revolution, should be of interest for all categories of readers). In five chapters, each of them corresponding with a shift in French political regime), Legacey studies how cemeteries changed, first in the material sense of the word – moving from the inner city to more bucolic places outside the city walls and introducing new types of burial and memorial practices– and second in the cultural sense – what does it mean to bury corpses in this or that way, why and how do people mourn, etc. Generally speaking, this study confirms and specifies a certain number of general tendencies that had been observed in other, more general contexts, such as: 1) the influence of pre-Revolutionary Enlightenment thinking on new forms of burial and rituals (moving away from Catholic and moralizing “memento mori” places and coming closer to more rationalist approaches of cemeteries as bridge-building between past, present and future), 2) the social need of using cemeteries as places to reconstruct a shattered society as well as to invent new forms of moral behavior, often seen as one of the results of Revolutionary chaos and immorality, without simply returning to the Old Regime where the meaning of death was monopolized and abused by the complicity of Kingdom and Church, 3) the impossibility to assign single or hegemonic meanings to cemeteries, whose actual experiences display a wide variety of beliefs and sensations, as Legacey powerfully demonstrates by the careful reading of the archival material, and 4) the all-pervading influence of the notion of “equality”, which is perhaps the most lasting and powerful influence of Revolutionary thinking on our interaction with corpses. Even when the ideal of equality, which Legacey convincingly links with the larger idea of individualism,  is far from being achieved in most of the examples studied by Legacey, the concept of equality is always present and structures the ways in which differences are handled.

The great value of Making Space for the Dead does not come from these general conclusions. Legacey clearly states that the purpose of her book is not to propose a new interpretation of the French Revolution, but to disclose a hidden part of it, and she is doing it in a superbly crafted way. On the one hand, there is the exceptional richness of the close-reading of the five key examples: the closing of the old medieval cemeteries (actually a project that had already started at the end of the Old Régime), the often very utopian ideas on new types of cemeteries (yet here as well, many Revolutionary dreams were sometimes just expansions of already existing Enlightenment proposals), the creation of the Père Lachaise cemetery (an example of social pacification in a context that makes room for a return of class differences), the Parisian catacombs (where the remains of older cemeteries were kept, yet also a place whose architects tried to restore certain Christian values), and the short-lived post-Revolutionary “Museum of French Monuments” – actually a place where desecrated and vandalized tombs were gathered and patriotically “curated” in a way not totally dissimilar to what happened with nationalized art works in the Louvre, and also a place of multiple anachronisms, that of the survival of Old Régime in Revolutionary years, that of the survival of the Revolution in Restoration years. On the other hand, there are also the many surprises offered by the understudied archives, such as for instance the projects competing for the building of new cemeteries or the historical guest book of the catacombs. In short, many reasons to discover this great example of cultural history, whose stakes will leave nobody indifferent.