Throughout his existence, man has been close to the dead, but not always in the same way! “Studying this relationship in the urban landscape therefore tells us about changes in society,” explains Amélie Perrier, moderator of a round table organized by historians from the University of Orléans and entitled “Of the dead among the living: in quest for neighborhood. This meeting takes place among the multiple events of the Rendez-vous de l’histoire, in Blois, in Loir-et-Cher.
The specialist in Greek history summarizes the situation in Antiquity: “The dead were then buried outside the city, in necropolises. In the Roman Empire, these stretched along the roads, to practical reasons for access, but also so that the names of the deceased, inscribed on steles, remain in the memory of the living.”
Christianization induced a radical transformation, completed around the year 1000: cemeteries entered the city because they surrounded the churches. “The people of the Middle Ages, who prepared their salvation throughout their lives, wanted to be buried as close as possible to the sacred place and the relics of the holy intercessors,” explains medievalist Juliette Dumasy-Rabineau, who participated in the round table. “Some were even buried under the church choir.” The funerary space itself becomes consecrated ground.
The cemetery, “living space”
The dead are now before the eyes of the living, especially since the cemetery “is a living space”. “After the great plague of 1348-1352 which decimated the European population, we witnessed a development of apocalyptic feeling, says the historian. Macabre dances decorate the churches and numerous processions stop in cemeteries where preachers exhort the populations to become “true” Christians again.” Which does not prevent more secular activities. Thus, “we sign commercial contracts by calling the dead as witnesses,” she adds. If one of the parties is not serious, they will take revenge… because we believe in the intervention of ghosts.
In the 17th century, although premature death was still omnipresent, a geographical distancing of the deceased took place: “In 1776, a royal edict prohibited burial in churches and forced the closure of certain urban cemeteries, explains another speaker, Gaël Rideau, professor of modern history. This is a hygiene measure because it is believed that the dead spread diseases. And an aesthetic concern: the clergy wants the floors of churches not to be constantly jostled by graves.” Cemeteries “migrate” outside of cities. The best known was undoubtedly, in 1786, that of the Innocents, in the heart of Paris, whose bones were emptied into the catacombs. “These operations traumatized the parishioners”, comments the historian, who however observes that at this time, death had less influence on piety because “pastoral work places more emphasis on Hope and the celebration of life here below. Funeral rituals are evolving: we no longer carry the body throughout the neighborhood. But we still spend as much on funerals and masses for the deceased.
From the 19th century onwards, increasing urbanization would reintegrate numerous peripheral cemeteries into the urban fabric… Before the middle of the 20th century, new social practices – death in hospital, abandonment of signs of mourning, rise of cremation… – does not make death invisible to the living. Enough to fuel the discussion with the Rendez-vous public.