Post-Mortem

Michael Burns

  • Death and the After-Life in Modern France by Thomas Kselman
    Princeton, 413 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 691 00889 2

Nineteenth-century demographers tried to take the measure of death. Years before Emile Durkheim, they counted suicide rates as barometers of social dissolution, and their rage for mathematical precision extended into all corners of ‘mortal knowledge’. Reflecting contemporary anxieties over urban growth, urban squalor, industrial accidents, the persistence of cholera, and, later in the century, the declining birthrate and the spread of tuberculosis, the new ranks of social scientists calculated the consequences of a rapidly changing French society. Thomas Kselman, in this superb new book, notes the paradox: hard facts about deadly disorders both heightened fears and raised hopes that solutions would follow. Government officials tackled problems of public hygiene, doctors formed professional organisations and vied with midwives and priests as bedside ministers; and hospitals, long rejected as sink-holes of contagion where the poor went to die, improved their practices, polished their image, and increased their clientele. The change was gradual, but the trend was clear: the 19th century marked ‘the medicalisation of sickness and death’. We live – or we are kept alive – by its legacy.

The century also marked, for some, the most celebrated fatality of the modern age. But if God was dead so too were heaven and hell, which raised thorny questions about immortality and the real estate of the after-life. Freemasons and other spiritualists clung to 18th-century notions of a distant watchmaker deity who honours no warranties, while new societies of ‘spiritists’, particularly strong in America, Britain and France, studied reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Amateur chemists of the immortal, they analysed ethereal matter and conjured up elements like the périsprit, which, as Kselman observes, seems to have drifted across generations and into the minds of today’s New Agers. But 19th-century spiritists were not all fogbound crackpots. Napoleon III and Victor Hugo, enemies in politics, were both ‘comforted by mediums who brought spirits back into their homes’: the philosopher Henri Bergson lectured on the topic (and believed in it); and when Captain Dreyfus’s brother, a man of high culture and Voltairian reason, wanted news of the prisoner’s fate on Devil’s Island, he turned to a semi-literate peasant woman whose skills of clairvoyance also attracted the attention of the British Society for Psychical Research.

Strict positivists, on the other hand, rejected all metaphysical speculation about the after-life – or tried to until death beckoned. Tracing the branches of human knowledge through three ‘conditions’ – from the Theological, or fictitious, to the Metaphysical, or abstract, and on to the crowning achievement of the Scientific, or positive – Auguste Comte, building on the materialist ideas of Claude Henri Saint-Simon, fashioned a philosophy that rooted paradise on earth. While the moral system of Christianity relied on promises and threats of the after-life, positivism relied on individual participation in the temporal work of human progress; deifying Science, it proclaimed the liberation of morality from the superstitions of religious orthodoxy. No modern philosophy did more to shape the political and social reforms of the early Third Republic, and none had a harder time with life’s final moment.

Comte knew it well. Devastated by his lover’s sudden death, he confronted the shortcomings of his own philosophy and solved the problem by tinkering with the system. Devising ‘a new cult in which the memory of the dead was a central element’, he passed his late years as a prayerful supplicant in daily communication with his partner’s spirit; he worshipped a medallion woven from her hair, composed long and intimate letters of ‘confession’, and in cemetery and church pew pledged his eternal fidelity. Comte’s odyssey, though more bizarre than most, captured the positivists’ struggle with the human quest for immortality. And while some cultists of scientific Progress migrated to spiritism or remained atheists until the end, others circled back to the religion of their youth.

Kselman describes, for example, the climactic moment in Roger Martin du Gard’s 1913 novel Jean Barois. Freethinking apostle of science and reason, Barois finds himself reciting a desperate Hail Mary when his horse-drawn carriage collides with two Parisian street-cars. Uninjured but morally shaken by his retreat into ‘superstition’, he drafts a last testament to reconfirm his rejection of ‘an immortal, independently existing soul’. Years later, however, with death again imminent, he calls a priest. In a final positivist surge, he thrusts away the crucifix, and then, ‘in wild confusion’, crushes it ‘passionately to his lips’. Death-beds became ‘tense theatres’, Kselman tells us, where priests and anti-clericals fought over definitions of delirium and salvation, and where, in the end, no earthly power could fathom the dying person’s ultimate profession of faith.

Villages and small towns had their provincial positivists (Flaubert’s pharmacist in Madame Bovary is a caricature with a grain of truth), but citified philosophies of Progress made slow headway in rural communities, where ‘Godfather Death’ was a feared and frequent visitor with a distinct personality and a long local history. In a harsh world of marked inequalities, he alone recognised no other authority, not even that of the established church. The folk narratives in which he appeared confirm Kselman’s point that ‘Christian orthodoxy did not have exclusive control over the next world.’ Listen to Death’s declaration in a Breton ballad of 1891:

If I wanted to listen to people, to accept a fee from them, even if it were only a half-penny, I would be drowning in wealth! But I wouldn’t take a pin, and I wouldn’t give a break to any Christian, not even to Jesus, or the Virgin ... I wouldn’t spare a pope, a cardinal or a king, not a one of them ... I wouldn’t spare an archbishop, a bishop or a priest. Neither nobles, gentlemen, nor bourgeois, neither artisans nor merchants, and not workers either,

Like Goodman Misery (‘who will remain on the face of the earth as long as the world exists’), Godfather Death was present everywhere, and so were his omens, in falling stars, howling dogs, screeching owls, birds hitting windows, and church clocks striking at the host’s moment of elevation. Rural rites of passage in the wake of death were no less varied. Feathers removed from death-bed pillows in Burgundy, Poitou and Lorraine ‘allowed the soul to depart more easily’, while in many regions polished surfaces and mirrors (rare in peasant households) were covered or turned to the wall so that the soul would not see its reflection and linger too long. Tokens sent off with the dead included coins, tools, pipes, trinkets and bottles of wine (children got toys, wealthy women got jewels); after the burial, gatherings of family and friends ranged from the discreet to the drunken. Local traditions, local brews, and the relative power of local curés helped determine the rituals and decorum of death.

Much of Kselman’s provincial evidence comes from the eastern department of the Maine-et-Loire, but other regions, he notes, would ‘yield interesting results’. So would other religions. In the Jewish communities of French Alsace, for example, a son would place a feather on his dying father’s lips to see his last breath, and then lower the body to the ground (‘dust returns to the earth as it was’). Jewish families purchased small sacks of dirt from pedlars, which they sprinkled on the forehead of the deceased, a symbol of the return to Palestine. As in Catholic and Protestant homes, the aim was to facilitate the passage of the dead (‘May the angels take thee into paradise’) and to comfort the grief-stricken through familiar rituals that imposed order on the chaos of loss. Psychologists, psycho-historians, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have all weighed in on the meaning of these rituals, fairy tales and folk narratives of death. Kselman draws on the ‘hermeneutic vocabularies’ of Bruno Bettelheim, Lévi-Strauss and others, but by pledging allegiance to no single theory he avoids the pitfalls of reductionism. Most impressively, he listens to the storytellers and captures the eloquence, cleverness and fatalism of popular tales.

The Church, we learn, revised its pastoral strategy on death, first in the city and later in the countryside. The relentless threats of eternal damnation, the hellfire and brimstone born of the Counter-Reformation, gradually gave way to a ‘milder message’. By the 1830s, sermons in Paris emphasised the tenderness of Christianity and the beauties of paradise. Similar trends appeared in provincial cities at mid-century, and by the fin de siècle villagers heard more about ‘Heaven with its infinite happiness’ than about the terrors of the Last Judgment. The decline in the numbers of churchgoers helped prompt the revisions (priests ‘had to mix some water in with their wine’, said one contemporary, ‘for otherwise they’d have no one’), but changing domestic sensibilities played their role as well.

Many families would no longer tolerate the thought of loved ones roasting in the flames of Hell, nor would they abide notions of ‘physical corruption and anonymous bones’. Only the expectation of a heavenly reunion made loss bearable, and in keeping with the new aesthetics of death, only beautiful corpses – well-dressed, well-coiffed and well-preserved – would be sent on their way. In the 19th century, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs des pompes funèbres (the term means ‘undertaker’ as well as ‘business agent’) joined priests and doctors in the ever-widening circle of family consultants.

In a lengthy analysis of ‘the material culture of death’, Kselman describes the free-trade pioneers of French undertaking, the competition they faced from state-sponsored enterprises, the array of their services, and the modern ‘homogenisation of funeral style’. Like the department stores, funeral companies were part of the process of ‘commodification’ and mass consumption (though undertakers serviced the most reliable consumers of all). But if modest families could afford more of death’s ‘accessories’, entrepreneurs des pompes funèbres made certain that they came on a sliding scale of prices. The four ‘classes’ of funerals offered early in the century rose to six and then ten, and depending on the package, families could arrange for candles (soon replaced by flowers), black crepe to drape front doors, basic or baroque hearses with coachmen clad in simple frock-coats or gold-braided uniforms, and coffins of pine board or polished mahogany. With a humble funeral costing as much as 700 francs (4000 francs for a first-class burial in Paris), critics called for relief: ‘At these prices,’ said one protester, ‘we can’t afford to die!’

The top-of-the-range funerals of celebrated figures inspired demonstrations of many sorts. Victor Hugo’s studiously civil burial in Paris in 1885 (often considered the opening act of the Belle Epoque) attracted two million onlookers, some of whom appreciated the display of anti-clericalism, most of whom relished urban entertainment. And Emile Zola’s funeral, at the Montmartre cemetery in 1902, became a battleground for radical socialists and militant nationalists, as did the removal of Zola’s remains to the Panthéon six years later. Kselman leads us through the significant moments of real and fictional funerals, including Balzac’s sad account of the pauper Père Goriot, and, in a thoughtful Epilogue, defines Gustave Courbet’s 1851 painting Burial at Ornans, with its cast of unconnected mourners, as a telling reflection of the ‘ambivalence and uneasiness about the cult of the dead’.

Part of the modern quest to hide death – and, by implication, to deny it – involved the ‘displacement of the dead’ from old central churchyards to new cemeteries beyond city walls. In Paris, the migration began in the wake of the Reign of Terror, when stacks of putrefying corpses turned stomachs and raised protests about public hygiene. But the 19th century marked the golden age of new grave-sites. Père Lachaise broke ground in 1804, followed by Montparnasse in 1824 and Montmartre, to the north, a year later, and provincial towns and villages soon cleared their own spaces. Fears of miasmes fétides contributed to the changes, but so too did the rising value of urban property (the living paid higher rents), and the impact of Napoleonic laws that gave all individuals the right to obtain ‘a distinct and separate place where people can establish graves for themselves, their relatives and heirs, and where they can construct vaults, monuments or tombs’. Construct they did, and nowhere more elaborately than at Père Lachaise, where Romantic architects, subsidised by families who saw nothing democratic in death, transformed that cemetery’s peaceful, park-like environment into a vault-filled amusement park of the dead.

The political and bureaucratic history of death, one of this book’s most original contributions, reveals much about the priorities of the living. Across the 19th century, government regulators confronted private-enterprise undertakers, while the clergy fought to head off the legal secularisation of French cemeteries. The Church failed on that score in 1881, as it would on the related law of separation two and a half decades later. But state centralisers, anti-clerical republicans and positivist philosophers were never able to secure a complete victory in the wars of science and religion. While French men (and, to a lesser extent, women) left the Church in droves, they returned to receive the Last Sacraments. Repelled by reactionary clergymen and indifferent to the services of Good Friday or Easter Sunday, they still called priests when doctors failed and still flocked to cemeteries on All Souls’ Day.

Death and the After-Life in Modern France rarely ventures beyond 1900, but if Kselman moved through our time as brilliantly as he does through the past, he would encounter the consequences of his central argument. We are the beneficiaries of the great shift that occurred in the practices and priorities of dying and death in the 19th century. ‘Medicalisation’ continues faster than ever, and the vast sums spent to commemorate death are now dwarfed by the monumental costs of postponing it. Kselman’s peasants, those close neighbours of Godfather Death, had more respect for life’s last mystery, and better sense.