Toussaint Day and French cemeteries


Toussaint Day (All Saint’s Day) takes place on the 1st 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. There are an important symbol of dying and death. This explains why the 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.

Passy Cemetery Paris © French Moments

Yellow Chrysanthemums at the Passy cemetery, Paris © French Moments

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.

Toussaint Day at the Père Lachaise Cemetery © French Moments

Toussaint Day at the Père Lachaise Cemetery © French Moments

The most popular French cemeteries

Toussaint is not the only day of the year to visit a French cemetery. Cemeteries such as Père Lachaise in Paris attracts visitors all year long who love its peaceful atmosphere.

In France, the municipality is in charge of cemeteries. They are respected and protected areas. The first example of 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 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.

Montparnasse Cemetery

Montparnasse Cemetery © French Moments

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, become unstable or begin 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 more 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 (Provence)

Ménerbes in the Luberon occupies a rocky spur. At the very end of the promontory is a very old cemetery.

Ménerbes © French Moments

Old cemetery of Ménerbes © French Moments

Les Baux-de-Provence (Provence)

Visitors in 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 off the crowds of tourists!

Les Baux-de-Provence © French Moments

The old cemetery of Les Baux © French Moments

Bonnieux (Provence)

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.

Cimetière de Bonnieux, Provence © French Moments

Cemetery of Bonnieux © French Moments

Roussillon (Provence)

Roussillon is a picturesque village situated in the Luberon area. Interestingly, the villagers used the ochre stones to built their houses, the church and… the tombstones! 

Roussillon Village © French Moments

Cemetery of Roussillon © French Moments

Hunawihr (Alsace)

Possibly one of the most beautiful resting places in France! It enjoys a fine view over the Alsace plain and the surrounding vineyards.

Cimetière d'Hunawihr, Alsace © French Moments

Cemetery of Hunawihr © French Moments

Charonne Village (Paris)

A fine example of cemetery on the grounds of a church, quite rare in France.

Charonne Paris © French Moments

The cemetery flanking the church of Charonne, Paris © French Moments

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.

Rocamadour © French Moments

The old graveyard of L’Hospitalet © French Moments

Père Lachaise, Paris

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!

? Find out more about the cemeteries of Paris!

The Catacombs of Paris

Arguably the most surprising burial site in Paris! The catacombs of Paris is the last home to thousands dead Parisians, including martyrs from the French Revolution.

>> Book your eTicket to the Catacombs of Paris here! <<

The skulls and bones came from the medieval cemetery of Saints Innocents. It was the largest burial site of Paris in the Middle-Ages. Authorities had it closed in the late 18th century. Since a market place 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 Vieil Armand National Necropolis (Alsace) © French Moments

The Vieil Armand National Necropolis (Alsace) © French Moments

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)…

English-French Vocabulary

(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)

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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