Tuesday, August 23, 2011


It’s a shame that such a meaningful place has a name that sounds like a cartoon character. (I have already started concepting the Picpus in my head.  I picture him with long tusks like a walrus, a bowler hat, and a love of cream pies, if you must know.)

But back to Picpus, the cemetery.

This all started because we watched a documentary on the Marquis de Lafayette the other night. Most Americans are at least familiar with his name thanks to it being laid on countless roads, schools, and towns.  (Fayetteville being my favorite. I love how they dropped the La- to make it more, uh, local.)  I knew he was a great friend to our country and used to kick it with guys like George Washington (the only George Dubbs worth anything in my book), but beyond that…

Here's a quick summary of the Marquis de Lafayette’s life.  He was a rich kid who was orphaned young and with a large inheritance (as a rich kid would be).  He married Adrienne de Noailles, who was also richy rich, and decided to head over to the United States (while his wife was pregnant, no less) to help in the new country’s efforts against the British.  This departure was mostly motivated by his wanting to stand for the ideals of the United States but also by his wanting to make a name for himself on the battlefield—any battlefield.  (He was, like, 17 at the time.)  But as he was accepted into the US army and moved up the ranks and became a trusted confident of (and like family to) General Washington, his want for fame fell to the wayside.

(Another interesting note was that he was one of the early proponents of abolishing slavery in the United States and in France.  He proposed to start this on several model plantations in America, and even enacted this himself on his own farm in Guiana. How different could our history have been if the powers-that-be listened to Lafayette at the time?  Think about that for a minute.)

At one point during the war, Lafayette came back to France to petition for more French help against the British.  He was promised a fleet of ships, which appeared just in time as Lafayette had Cornwallis and the British troops pinned in the battle of Yorktown.  So if I may break it down, the French came in to ensure our defeat of the British.

Do you hear me?  THE FRENCH.

Funny, no one seemed to remember this during the “Freedom Fries” embarrassment/backlash of our recent history.  And there are still many Americans who disrespect the French and possess a general misunderstanding of them.  These are the same Americans who come over here for vacation but act disrespectfully when the culture is not the same as their own.

But I digress. Growing up American, I heard over and over how many times WE saved the French during WWII (and WWI for that matter).  But, honestly, if the French hadn’t saved us during the Revolutionary War, we may not have been around for WWII.  Am I being a bit dramatic?  Yes, but it’s worth it.

Because when I saw that American flag flying above Lafayette’s grave, I felt a little choked up.  This guy loved our country as much as his own.  He loved it enough to risk his life when we were just a fledgling.

He is even buried with dirt from George Washington’s grave.*  It’s not bad company to go into the ground with.

So here I give you some photos from the Picpus cemetery, which itself has a special story. But you’ve had enough words for now, so I’ll spill it with the photos.

More than 1300 victims of the "Terror" of the guillotine were laid here in mass graves.  It was actually Lafayette's wife who was instrumental in founding the cemetery.  The bodies of these 1300 victims were thrown here at night, so people had no idea where the bodies of their loved ones had gone until Adrienne de Noailles and her sisters wanted to find where their mother, grandmother, and sister were buried.

They realized that all of the victims had been buried in haste and given no religious ceremony.  So they decided to create a place of meditation and prayer to honor their memory.

They brought in the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to look after the chapel and make sure the prayers were perpetual.

Each victim's name is inscribed in the chapel, along with their occupation.  From 14 June to 27 July 1794, these 1306 people aged 14 to 90 years were executed.  Most of the victims came from the people, but there were also nobles, soldiers, priests, and nuns.

The two mass grave sites are outside this gate and unmarked in the grass.  This is the little cemetery for the families of the victims.

It is unremarkable, really, though there are some old gravestones.  I guess I just mean it's not one of those gothically beautiful European cemeteries.  But it is beautiful and peaceful (and has some killer ivy!) nonetheless.

And here he is, in his own little corner of the Picpus Cemetery.

Should you want to read more about Lafayette, here's some wiki for you.

* This is what the documentary tells me anyway.  Because I also read that he's buried with dirt from Bunker Hill.  So you can decide for yourself.