Study and visit of the cemetery of Villefranche-sur-Saône, France
Cette brève transcrit une intervention donnée en ligne le 12 novembre 2021 dans le cadre des Journées d’étude de l’Association of Significant Cemeteries of Europe (ASCE) consacrées au « Cemetourism: cemeteries with stories to tell ».
The « Printemps des Cimetières » is a national event dedicated to the promotion of funerary heritage that takes place every year in May in France. It was created in 2016 by Patrimoine Aurhalpin.
In Villefranche, 30 km north of Lyon, this Spring event includes a guided tour with three women speakers: a scholar (Janine Meaudre), a librarian (Laurence Petit) and an art historian (myself). It also includes a reading aloud from three voices. Many stories to tell indeed: the history of the cemetery itself, the stories of the families we chose to highlight, the explanation of the funerary symbols, and a short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant.
This urban cemetery opened in 1859, was extended in 1906 and 1958. It looks like a town within the town, with boundary walls, streets, comfortable neighbourhoods, suburbs, etc. The deceased are mainly French of catholic religion.
The city of Villefranche keeps almost all the municipal archives regarding the cemetery, so we have access to first-hand information. Moreover, the grandsons of a sculptor, Michel Métra, who adorned several graves in our town, own a considerable collection of documents, photographs, tools from the artist’s studio: there too, we have access to unpublished documentation1.
Many of the first graves are still visible. They are a testimony of the customs of their time, and bring genealogical information about the families, often belonging to the upper middle class. Furthermore, the cemetery has an artistic value: it could be seen as a full-scale catalogue of all architectural styles in a same place and scholars could be taught there: neo-Antic, neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, Renaissance Revival, Neoclassical, Eclectic, Art Nouveau, Art Déco.
Funerary art and epitaphs are tools for knowledge, to understand how people considered death, their attitude toward sorrow, the way they affirmed their social status.
Architects have designed sepulchral chapels and tombs here, but marble workers have left their marks on most graves.
The funeral symbolism, now forgotten in modern graves, is here carved in stone or painted on stained glass. So we can see in Villefranche many angels, many wreath of immortelles, many « foi » (the French term for husband’s and wife’s crossed hands), allegories of pain or sorrow, many buds, flowers and capsules of poppies, theological virtues, winged hourglasses, ivy…. that give some information about the deceased’s spiritual beliefs.
In 2020, the guided tour was cancelled because of the pandemic so we published in May an article in the present electronic journal in order to, nonetheless, make these Springs live (https://inventaire-rra.hypotheses.org/6710).
The 2021 edition was a real success: we guided a two hour visit on a shiny Sunday of May from 4 to 6 pm. Local journalists covered the event, articles were published in Le Patriote beaujolais and in Le Progrès, with a slide show in the electronic version. An article was published in the Letter of the Academy in July. A lecture is given at the Académie of Villefranche in May 2022: it was postponed in 2021 because of Covid.
An electronic file, quite substantial, was published on our website in the wake of the event: the visitors were waiting for it (Cimetière Saint-Denis – Inventaire Général du Patrimoine Culturel (auvergnerhonealpes.fr).
We felt that visitors had an eager pleasure to join a group to visit a patrimonial site after all these months of lockdown and curfew, although it took place during an extended weekend. Forty-two persons were waiting for us (they came early), in spite of gauges still in force. I had brought two documents: postcards especially printed for that occasion and a Vademecum to restore monuments: they were virtually snatched from my hands!
Nobody seemed shocked by our guided tour in the cemetery.
This urban cemetery opened during the second half of the nineteenth century and, as ridiculousness does not kill, it was quite legitimate to read aloud the juicy short story Tombstones by Maupassant written in 1891. It was a real pleasure to hear people chuckling while we were reading.
We organized the same event in 2022. For the 2023 edition, we would like to edit a booklet to give to the visitors, and, perhaps, to be accompanied by sign language interpreters.
To conclude, I would like to add that funerary heritage is a sensitive topic which concerns intimate life today. And people came perhaps for this aspect: to hear about death but softened by its historical and cultural context. And we hope that our work will encourage the restoration of tombs.
Véronique Belle, Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel, Région Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Une nouvelle visite guidée du cimetière de Villefranche aura lieu le samedi 13 mai 2023 à 16h. Elle sera interprétée en langue des signes française, permettant aux personnes sourdes et mal entendantes de se joindre au public entendant : Le cimetière de Villefranche-sur-Saône, une ville dans la ville (openagenda.com).
Pour citer cet article
BELLE, Véronique. « Study and visit of the cemetery of Villefranche-sur-Saône, France. » Les carnets de l’Inventaire : études sur le patrimoine – Région Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes [en ligne], 22 mars 2023 [consulté le …]. URL : Study and visit of the cemetery of Villefranche-sur-Saône, France – Les Carnets de l’Inventaire. Etudes sur le patrimoine culturel en Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (hypotheses.org)
Pour en savoir plus
Dossiers d’inventaire en ligne : Cimetière Saint-Denis – Inventaire Général du Patrimoine Culturel (auvergnerhonealpes.fr)
- Our thanks to Philippe Branche [↩]