Halloween/Toussaint and the nature of French cemetaries

Every year on the 1st November the Catholic festival of La Toussaint (All Saint’s Day) is a celebrated in churches and graveyards across France. Officially it is the day when all the saints recognised by the Catholic Church are honoured. The following day is Le Jour des Morts (All Soul’s Day) when people pray for the souls of the departed. Both days are national holidays and children have a two-week holiday from school at this time of the year. La Toussaint is frequently marked in cemeteries by the lighting of candles and the decorating of graves with chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums are associated with death and, at this time of the year, are to be found on sale in all florists and gardening outlets (see images below).

The origins of La Toussaint festival date from the 5th Century and the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which was traditionally celebrated at the beginning of November to mark the start of the dark half of the year. Celts would feast and drink and believed it was a time when they could to communicate with the dead. The cross-over time from light days to dark days was seen as a time when the living and the dead could cross-over the void and speak to each other. (Also see similar beliefs re the symbolism of the cross ) Like many pagan festivals and beliefs it was assimilated by the emerging Catholic Church.  Originally Pope Boniface IV turned it into a day dedicated to the mother of God and all martyred saints when it was celebrated on 13th May (the start of the longer, lighter days). Later, around 830 AD, Pope Gregory IV moved it to November and rededicated it to All Saints and the re-vitalising agency of the dead.

In France cemeteries are generally surrounded by high walls, and are locked at night time. They are very well kept and graves well maintained. This ties in with the civic pride so prominent in France and the traditional philosophy of French formal garden design and garden architecture. Further, the French have a tradition of decorum for their dead, therefore, neglected burial grounds are very rare.

A big difference in France from the UK is the absence of graveyards in church grounds along with the location of public graveyards on the outskirts of towns and villages. There are a number of reasons for this that, I think, are historically important.

In the eighteenth century expanding towns and cities with growing mortality rates resulted in overcrowded urban burial grounds that rapidly became public health hazards. A corpse would usually be buried in a simple shirt or winding sheet, there was frequently no coffin used and the grave itself would be shallow. When disinterred, to make room for others, these bodies were frequently in semi-decay. It was the cholera epidemics of the mid 19th century, improved mortuary practices and public concern about effects of poorly run cemeteries on local water supplies that brought about the closure of inner-city graveyards and the creation of out-of-town cemeteries.

This demise of church graveyards and the creation in each commune of a public cemetery was a sign of the growing separation between Church and State. In fact, during the second half of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries other functions once performed by the Church, were being carried out by secular bodies, for example through the creation of clubs, societies and party associations.

For small, village communes such as Paulmy in the South Touraine, the purchase and creation of a public cemetery with its high wall, iron gates, drainage ditch and annual maintenance will have represented a high cost and will have been the subject of many a long committee meeting in the local Mairie. Hard-headed farmers may well have been of the opinion that the very real needs of the living were more deserving of public investment that the needs of the dead. But, as you will see from the images below, the Paulmy village cemetery was built and the local churchyard is bereft of graves.

As Gillian Tindall writes in her marvellous book, Célestine, “Individually owned graves were in themselves a novelty to the ordinary people of rural France….In the past when one generation succeeded another in the same space of earth, and the wooden crosses  above ground decayed with the passing seasons, as did what lay beneath, a true levelling in death had taken place. For a few years a grave-mound might be known and recognised, but as time passed a democratic oblivion took over. …Only in the new cemeteries across France was the family tomb to become to be another piece of property, to be marked, fenced, tended and decorated accordingly.”

The population in rural areas now wanted something more than a wooden cross and a simple coffin of a few planks of wood, roughly nailed together. They wanted a polished casket, perhaps with a cloth lining, and a more permanent stone monument.  Further, the dead started to be buried dressed in their best clothes (e.g. a wedding suit) and along with personal artefacts like tobacco, a prayer book or a hat. Because of this increased financial investment by families of the deceased, grave plots were leased for longer periods (which was very useful for the local commune’s coffers!)

The re-location of cemeteries to the outskirts of villages brought about significant social changes. Churches are generally in the heart of the village and their graveyards were once communal meeting places both before and after masses on Sundays and other feast days. Local people would gather and combine the exchange of news along with visiting the graves of their deceased family members. The new cemeteries accelerated the dismissal of the past which then became more remote. It also decreased, within village society, certainty in a life after death, salvation of souls and resurrection in another world. Other customs also ceased including the public burning of the dead person’s death bed. This would previously have been a bed of straw. As more expensive beds became the norm, these were not burned and this custom declined. These changes, along with the demise of professional, wailing mourners, lead to funerals becoming less communal and more private, family affairs where grief was increasingly exhibited in private rather than in public.

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Sources used:
Célestine – voices from a French village, Gillian Tindall, Vintage, 1999
Peasants into Frenchmen – the modernisation of rural France, 1870-1914, Eugen Weber, Chato & Windus, 1977

 Read more about cemeteries at:


About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in 19th Century Touraine, 20th Century, Catholicism, Folklaw, Paulmy, South Touraine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Halloween/Toussaint and the nature of French cemetaries

  1. drofmit4108 says:

    Are you two OK there in Blighty?
    We had a strong blow through yesterday… has anyone been able to check your place, or would you like us to swing past?

    • Jim McNeill says:

      Hi – I was at the house very briefly last week and all was OK. We should be there on Tuesday evening, but if you are in the area then it’d be great if you took a quick look at the tiles.
      Kind regards,

      • drofmit4108 says:

        OK Jim,
        We’ll pass by tomorrow on our way to Ferriere-Larcon for a concert at LPTdB.
        If you don’t hear from me tomorrow evening, all is OK.
        We are having “Drinks & Nibbles” English style on Boxing Day afternoon/evening, we’d love you both to come.

  2. Pingback: Chrysanthemums « Our French Adventure

  3. Interesting post Jim, of course the French name for Chysantmummmings is Immortelles (easier to spell as well!) Love Colin

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