Picpus Cemetery is the resting place for 1,306 people executed during the Great Terror 14 June – 27 July 1794.
It is the only private cemetery in Paris. It most famously houses the remains of the General-Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American War of Independence and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen for the French Revolution.
The marquis is buried beneath soil from America’s Bunker Hill near Boston. Every year on (or close to) 4 July, the date of America’s independence, Lafayette is remembered by Americans in a ceremony at Picpus Cemetery, and the Daughters of the American Revolution renew the American flag flying over his grave.
But although Americans are most likely to seek out the Marquis de Lafayette because of his significance to American history, the story of Picpus Cemetery is not his alone. He is buried there by virtue of his wife’s ties to martyrs of the French Revolution. Only victims of this massacre and their family members may be interred there.
Many of them rest in family crypts, while others lie in graves. You can see names like De Noailles, La Rochefoucauld, and Montmorency on plaques and stones there.
Past the Notre Dame de la Paix Chapel with the names of the martyrs, past the wall and the free-range chickens at the garden entrance, you come to the main cemetery. All the way in the back corner of Picpus, you’ll see an American flag flying over the graves of Lafayette and his wife, Adrienne de Noailles.
It’s nothing terribly fancy, but it is a good place to remember and pray and reflect on the extremes humanity can go to for good and bad causes. It’s a good place to look at a bit of history and remember why we all need grace.
The French Revolution came hard on the heels of the American Revolution, when the United States was still a very young country. But this extermination of France’s entrenched aristocracy was much bloodier than America’s rebellion from a distant monarch. The Great Terror that followed was no less so and ultimately took over 16,000 heads at the guillotine.
To best understand what Picpus Cemetery means to French history, I’ll share this bit from a flyer the caretaker gave us when we visited:
“…during the Great Terror, 1306 persons from various social backgrounds, aged between 16 and 85, were executed in the Place du Trône Renversé ‘Square of the Overturned Throne,’ now renamed Place de l’Île de la Réunion. They were nearly all condemned on petty, absurd, or imaginary grounds. The massacre only stopped on July 27th (9th Thermidor by the revolutionary calendar), when the main instigator of these horrors, Maximilien de Robespierre, was himself condemned and then guillotined by his sidekicks, who were scared of becoming the next victims of this murderous folly.
“Thus perished among others: the poet André de Chénier, the 16 Carmelites of Compiégne who in imitation of Christ, offered God the sacrifice of their lives and mounted to the scaffold singing the Salve Regina, the grandmother, mother and sister of Adrienne de Noailles, wife of the Général-Marquis de La Fayette, hero of the American War of Independence (which explains why he is in this cemetery), the Vicomte de Beauharnais, the Empress Josephine's first husband, the Duc de Noailles-Mouchy, Marshal of France, the Abbess Louise de Montmorency-Laval who was deaf and blind and accused of having plotted ‘deafly and blindly’—and many more” including family members of “the highest aristocracy.”
Their bodies were thrown in unmarked mass graves in a garden requisitioned from the Convent of the Chanoinesses de St Augustin. It is only because a Miss Paris followed the carts carrying the headless bodies there, including those of her loved ones, that the other victims’ families came to know what had become of the dead.
The families then secretly bought the enclosures so they could attempt to bury their loved ones properly and create a place for prayer and meditation. They also solicited perpetual prayer from the Sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.