Toussaint Day (All Saint’s Day) takes place on the 1st of November and is a special day for Catholics to honour their deceased relatives and friends. Let’s find out more about La Toussaint and French cemeteries.
Toussaint and French cemeteries
Over Toussaint, people come in great numbers to cemeteries to pay respect to their dead with cut flowers to leave on the graves.
Chrysanthemums are the traditional flowers bought on Toussaint Day. The flowers are an important symbol of dying and death. This explains why flowers are rarely given as gifts in France.
Chrysanthemums exist in bursts of colours: white, yellow, purple or bronzed red. Florists often take over the pavements outside the cemeteries to supply the visitors with chrysanthemums.
On Toussaint Day, family and friends also take the time to change pots or vases with new fresh flowers. They take the opportunity to clean and tidy the graves and do any necessary weeding.
After the visit to the cemetery, family members often reunite over a long big lunch. Toussaint is a public holiday in France when businesses and shops are closed and children enjoy a two-week holiday from school.
The most popular French cemeteries
In France, the municipality is in charge of cemeteries. They are respected and protected areas. The first example of a modern landscaped cemetery is Père Lachaise in Paris. But not all cemeteries in France look like Père Lachaise. In fact, this famous Parisian resting place is quite unique.
What makes French cemeteries different from other countries?
French cemeteries are surrounded by high walls. Their iron gates are locked at night time. Usually, the village’s cemetery doesn’t flank the church:
- The church generally stands at the centre of a village or a town.
- French cemeteries are generally situated on the outskirts.
In a few places, cemeteries are found on the church’s grounds like they usually do in Britain. For instance: the church of the Charonne Village, Paris or that of Hunawihr in Alsace.
The monumental cemeteries of France
French cemeteries are often laid out with graves in rows, generally grouped into larger sections. These resting places are called “monumental cemeteries“. For instance, headstones and other grave monuments rise vertically above the ground, unlike lawn cemeteries.
The headstones and other funeral monuments are made of marble and granite and are often entirely covered by a slab.
Maintenance of the cemetery
The cemetery management is in charge of the daily maintenance of the grounds, the landscaping, the allocation of land for burial, and the digging and filling of graves.
The construction and maintenance of headstones remain the responsibilities of surviving families.
What are the burial practices in French cemeteries?
Family or individual graves cover the coffins that contain the remains. People buy plots for 10, 30, 50 years or in perpetuity. The latter is obviously the most expensive option.
In France as in the rest of the world, cremation is more and more popular. People can either keep the urn at home, scatter the ashes or buy a niche in a columbarium.
If a grave is not taken care of, becomes unstable or begins to decay, a note is then attached to it requiring the relatives to contact the municipality.
We’ve found a great account of Toussaint Day at a French cemetery near Reims here.
The crowded cemeteries of Paris!
In Paris’ cemeteries, very few plots are available. Most family plots are no larger than 2 or 3 square metres. That means that coffins are usually put one on top of the other with shelves between them.
Let’s discover a few French cemeteries
Here are some photos we took while visiting cemeteries in France.
Ménerbes in the Luberon occupies a rocky spur. At the very end of the promontory is a very old cemetery.
Les Baux-de-Provence (Provence)
Visitors to Provence know Les Baux for its formidable castle… but how many of them venture to the cemetery? Surprisingly, this is a place of peace and quiet for the crowds of tourists!
At the foot of the Luberon mountain is the old village of Bonnieux. The cemetery stretches on a hill overlooking the village and the Coulon valley.
Roussillon is a picturesque village situated in the Luberon area. Interestingly, the villagers used the ochre stones to build their houses, the church and… the tombstones!
Possibly one of the most beautiful resting places in France! It enjoys a fine view over the Alsace plain and the surrounding vineyards.
Charonne Village (Paris)
A fine example of the cemetery on the grounds of a church is quite rare in France.
Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris)
Montparnasse Cemetery includes 35,000 burial plots spread over 19 hectares and 1,200 trees.
L’Hospitalet, Rocamadour (Quercy)
Around the chapel of L’Hospitalet are the ruins of the medieval hospital. A cemetery for modest pilgrims to Rocamadour occupies the hospital’s former garden.
The world’s most visited cemetery is in Paris. Its name? Le cimetière du Père Lachaise. Visitors stroll through the graves of Jean de la Fontaine, Molière, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Yves Montand.
Passy Cemetery (Paris)
Although this Parisian cemetery is situated near two major touristic hotspots (Eiffel Tower and Trocadero), the Passy graveyard is not a touristic place…
And yet, the Passy cemetery offers some incredible views of the Eiffel Tower. A must-see destination in Autumn!
The Catacombs of Paris
Arguably the most surprising burial site in Paris! The catacombs of Paris are the last home to thousands of dead Parisians, including martyrs from the French Revolution.
The skulls and bones came from the medieval cemetery of Saints Innocents. It was the largest burial site in Paris in the Middle Ages. Authorities had it closed in the late 18th century. Since a marketplace occupied the site… and today it has become Les Halles!
Military cemeteries in France
The Two world wars took their toll on the north and northeast of France. When travelling across the once devastated regions you’ll find many war memorials and military cemeteries.
The National Cemetery in Sigolsheim is one of them. It overlooks the plain of Alsace in the region of Colmar. The military cemetery gathers the mortal remains of the French 1st Army. These are soldiers who fought the fierce battles of the “Pocket of Colmar” (Winter 1944-45).
There are many other necropolis in France. For instance: Hartmannswillerkopf (Alsace), Verdun (Lorraine), Notre-Dame de Lorette (Hauts-de-France)…
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- All Saints’ Day = Toussaint (f)
- burial = enterrement (m)
- burial plot = concession (f)
- catacombs = catacombes (p)
- cemetery = cimetière (m)
- chrysanthemum = chrysanthème (m)
- dead = mort (m) / morte (f) / morts (m,p)
- death = mort (f)
- grave = tombe (f)
- graveyard = cimetière (m)
- headstone = pierre tombale, stèle (f)
- military cemetery = cimetière militaire (m)
- necropolis = nécropole (f)
- public holiday = jour férié (m)
- resting place = lieu de repos (m)
- Saint = Saint (m) / Sainte (f)
- slab = dalle (f)
- vault = caveau (m)