- Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780–1830 by Erin-Marie Legacey
This well-written, well-researched, and revelatory book is, in one register, about the dead bodies of the French Revolution, the problem bodies: the millions in the Cemetery of the Innocents that had been accumulating there for more than a millennium but whose stench newly came to be seen as an existential threat to the health of Paris in the waning years of the Old Regime; the thousands of hastily buried headless corpses of the 1793–94 Terror that kept resurfacing; the martyrs and great men of the revolution—the Mirabeaus and Marats—who had to go somewhere; the long dead remains from royal, clerical, and other aristocratic tombs attacked by iconoclasts along with the shattered monuments that had stood above them; and the countless ordinary corpses of the 1790s that awaited the outcome of debates for the creation of new spaces for the dead as the old ones were dismantled.
But it is also about French revolutionary dead bodies, that is, about how they— the problem bodies—in league with their living compatriots, wrought what Erin-Marie Legacey calls the “Revolution of the Dead.” The bodies from the Cemetery of the Innocents went into quarried caves under Paris—the catacombs, as they came to be called—where a new empire of the dead gave Parisians a sense of relief from the discontinuity of revolution by creating a “beautiful horror” that connected them with their ancestors and with a universal and timeless sense of mortality. The newly dead of the revolutionary decades made their way into Napoleon’s Père Lachaise after a decade of debate about what spaces for the dead in a new age should represent: the equality of all its citizens—that was really only possible in the charnel house of the catacombs; the virtues of domestic and private life; or the possibility for distinction, of careers open to talent. Père Lachaise became one of the great romantic gathering places of the city. It became a city of dead for the city, a space in which the new order made itself manifest in its dead.
The famous dead of the revolution as well as its intellectual progenitors found their way into the Pantheon, a church that was to be dedicated to Saint Geneviève and house her relics but which was rededicated as a secular temple for the remains for the great and the good: Voltaire, Rousseau, Marat, and later for Napoleonic generals. And the distinguished dead of old, violently exhumed from their graves along with the monuments, were rescued by Alexander Lenoir, a self- taught archeologist who in 1795 created the Musée des monuments français where the history of France—the continuity that the revolution had disrupted—was displayed through its sepulchral remains. What actual bodies Lenoir could rescue, along some monuments, made their way into a sort of outdoor museum, a Parisian Ely-sian field where the living could meet the long dead. The museum was a popular venue until the restoration government closed it, returning what tombs it could to families of their former owners. The tomb of Abelard and Heloise, rescued from a monastery, went to Père Lachaise. All this cultural work represented “attempts [End Page 125] and opportunities to reorganize and restore [I would add “make anew along new principles”] a social order that seemed in pieces” (p. 4).
Why doctors and the educated public came, in the late eighteenth century, to regard the age-old stench of the dead in their midst as especially dangerous—as a problem—remains puzzling. Legacey does not address the question but then neither does anyone else who has written on the history of how they were kicked out of European cities. In the eighteenth century there were only few doctors who contested the new orthodoxy that corpses caused disease; today we know they...