Tuesday, January 26, 2010

the temple of grief

Dan’s post made me think about the old French funeral arrangements. Nowadays there are private funeral homes in Paris.
There’s even a dog cemetary in the suburbs. But before the famous dead and not so famous dead were buried the municality of Paris controlled all funeral arrangements until 1993. This was done at the pompe funebres in a former abbatoir - slaughter house - which many called oddly fitting.

But at one time they travelled by cortege with horses and black ebony carriages through the street from the canal across from the abbatoirs at la Villette.
The main pompes funebres - central funeral monopoly run by the municipality - or temple of grief had been part of the abbatoirs across the canal until 1906 when the station-like building became the holding site of the dead.

After the construction of the building in 1873 by the diocese in 1905, with the separation of church and state, what created the municipal funeral (SMPF), lived as a Progressive Republican ideas : indeed, everyone was now entitled to a ceremony, regardless of religion, status (divorced women previously had to be buried at night) or the circumstances of his death (suicides were also banned). The monopoly law affected coffins, hearses, "carry" and cemeteries. An important part of the work fell within the "pump". Thus, it was mandatory (even in the 1980s) to place the hangings at the entrance to buildings where there were dead.

Even the president of the Republic Felix Faure well known for his handling of the Dreyfus affair passed through here. But Faure is better known in France for his manner of expiration, at the time said to be apoplexy, but later known to have expired in the arms of his mistress Madame Steinheil...The French love puns and Faure is commonly referred to have been sent to the pump - pompe - for pumping too much. I'm just repeatng what I've heard. There's a lot more puns about Madame Steinheil but we'll leave those.

During the years of full operation, 27 000 hearses passed through the doors, 1 400 people worked there, including some forty women. The Funeral employed both carpenters and cabinet makers, mechanics, seamstresses, painters and bricklayers. The duties were very codified: implementing office convoys, trimmer, porter ... On the site were then offices, stables, a civil service, workshops, canteen, barber shop, a shoeshine boy, housing for employees on call, warehouses for poles and curtains. I don't know if I would have like to live on site if I were an employee.

After the Second World War and the wars in Indochina and Algeria, the remains of unknown soldiers and victims were brought here to be claimed by the families.

But now the pompes funebres is called the centquatre, and has become an artist space offering residencies, a stipend and performance space. Quite a change from the dead to the living.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. I'd like to hear the puns about Madame Steinheil! Don't be shy, I promise not to blush.

  2. Oh, this was interesting information!

  3. Gary,

    Madame Steinheil went on to become the mistress of many - no slouch in the amour department!
    This is from Wiki - Faure died suddenly from apoplexy on 16 February 1899, at a critical juncture while engaged in sexual activities in his office with 30-year-old Marguerite Steinheil. It has been widely reported that those activities were oral sex, but their exact nature is in fact unknown and such reports may have stemmed from various jeux de mots (puns) made up afterward by his political opponents. One such pun was to nickname Mme Steinheil "la pompe funèbre" (wordplay in French: could mean both "funeral pomp" and "funeral pump"). George Clemenceau's epitaph of Faure, in the same trend, was "Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée" (another wordplay in French; could mean both "he wished to be Caesar, but ended up as Pompey", or "he wished to be Caesar and ended up being pumped": the verb "pomper" in French is also slang for performing oral sex on a man);

  4. My God, the things I learn here.

    Great post, great pun, Cara.

  5. My high school French teacher, a nun, most definitely did not lead me to believe that I would learn such things if I mastered the language.

    Had I known I would have worked harder.

  6. What interesting information. One question, if the divorced women were buried at night, when were the divorced men buried?

  7. Mason good question! I'll see what I can dig up:) Sorry, Tim that's about as far as I get with puns.

    Beth, Madame Steinheil was also involved in a murder and I believe a suspect at one point. Now there's fodder for another post.


  8. Excellent post Cara! Death and all of its ceremonies are so oddily appealing, in particular those of the past somehow.


  9. So Madame had men lining up after one had died from her attentions? Either French men aren't superstitious, or they were so overcome with curiousity about what had really happened that they wanted to...errr...pump her about it.