Toussaint Day and French cemeteries

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Toussaint (All Saint’s Day) takes place on the 1st November and is a special day for Catholics to honour their deceased relatives and friends.


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. The traditional flowers bought on Toussaint Day are chrysanthemums. An important symbol of dying and death, the flowers are rarely given as gifts. Chrysanthemums can be bought 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, 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.

pere-lachaise-cemetery-05-copyright-french-moments

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, cemeteries are respected and protected areas controlled by the municipality. 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.

French cemeteries are surrounded by high walls whose iron gates are locked at night time. If the church stands at the centre of a village or a town, French cemeteries are generally situated on the outskirts. In very few places (such as in Charonne Village, Paris) cemeteries are found on the church’s grounds like they usually do in Britain.

French cemeteries are often laid out with graves in rows, generally grouped into larger sections. These resting places are called “monumental cemeteries” where 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.

If the maintenance of the grounds, the landscaping, the allocation of land for burial, the digging and filling of graves are managed by the cemetery management, the construction and maintenance of headstones remain the responsibilities of surviving families. 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.


Photos of French cemeteries

Some photos we took of cemeteries in France.

Ménerbes (Provence)

A very old cemetery situated at the very end of the rocky spur on which is built the village of Ménerbes.

Les Baux-de-Provence (Provence)

Bonnieux (Provence)

Roussillon (Provence)

Hunawihr (Alsace)

Possibly one of the most beautiful resting place in France with a fine view over the Alsace plain and the vineyards.

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Charonne Village (Paris)

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

Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris)

View of Paris’ second largest cemetery from the top of Montparnasse Tower. Montparnasse Cemetery includes 35,000 burial plots spread over 19 hectares, and 1,200 trees.

Montparnasse © French Moments

L’Hospitalet, Rocamadour (Quercy)

Around the chapel of L’Hospitalet are the ruins of the medieval hospital and a garden which used to be a cemetery for modest pilgrims to Rocamadour.

Père Lachaise, Paris

The world’s most visited cemetery is found in Paris: 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.

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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)
  • cemetery = cimetière (m)
  • chrysanthemum = chrysanthème (m)
  • dead = mort (m) / morte (f) / morts (m,p)
  • death = mort (f)
  • grave = tombe (f)
  • headstone = pierre tombale, stèle (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. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French 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.

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