A Tale of Two Revolutions at the Grave of the Marquis de Lafayette

Grave of the Maquis de Lafayette (all photographs by the author)

Far from the pomp of fireworks and bombastic celebrations across the United States is another Fourth of July commemoration in one of the most quiet and haunting places in Paris. The Cimetière de Picpus in the 12th arrondissement is the final resting place of Marquis de Lafayette, one of the heroic icons of the American Revolution, yet the story of the cemetery is inextricably a part of France's own revolution.

Cimetière de Picpus

I visited the cemetery during a recent visit to Paris, and it almost feels like you're on American soil with the constant visits of traveling Americans or school groups paying tribute to the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, a man who funded his own way to fight in the American Revolution and so impressed George Washington that he was named a Major General in the Continental Army. In fact, Lafayette himself was buried under soil from Bunker Hill that was poured over his coffin.

Grave of the Marquis de Lafayette

Yet as evidence of the complicated nature of his progressive politics with his country, which itself had a chaotic plunge into the 19th century, when Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, King Louis-Philippe put a ban on any official recognition of his death, even stationing armed guards along the cemetery route to keep away the crowds. (This was only a couple of years after the riots that followed the death of General Lamarque, as immortalized by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables.) As Harlow G. Unger in his book Lafayette cites, one local progressive newspaper quipped: "Hide yourself, Parisians! The funeral of an honest man and true friend of liberty is passing by."

One of the two mass graves for the guillotine victims

Just over the wall from Lafayette's slab tombstone are two pits with simple markers where the bodies of some 1,300 people were mass buried. They were all victims of the guillotine at the last peaking height of the the Terror that came after the turmoil of the French Revolution.

Another marker for one of the two mass graves for the guillotine victims

Lafayette's wife Adrienne de Noailles lost her grandmother, sister, and mother to the guillotine set up at the nearby Place de la Trône Renversée (the Place of the Reversed Throne, now the Place de la Nation), and it was partly through her and her family's efforts that the cemetery was consecrated and a chapel built where the names of the over 1,300 people are engraved on giant plaques on the wall. When Adrienne died in 1807, she was buried near her anonymously interred family, just as many other aristocratic family members were, and decades later her husband would rest at her side.

Plaque of guillotine victim names in the chapel

Chapel at the cemetery

Years later in 1917 when the Americans arrived in Paris to join World War I, General John Pershing's forces replanted the American flag at the grave on July 4. Colonel Charles E. Stanton there declared: "Lafayette, we are here." Even during the occupation of Paris in World War II the American flag is said to have flown continuously over the grave at this quiet place of memory for the victory and chaos of revolution. And each year on July 4 a ceremony is held to replace this flag. 

Mausoleum in the cemetery


Cenotaph for the poet André de Chénier, one of those killed at the guillotine


Memorial plaques for the guillotine, including the Carmelite nuns who sang hymns until their deaths


View of the small cemetery


Inside the chapel


On the path between the cemetery and the chapel


Tree-lined path leading from the cemetery back to the chapel

A TALE OF TWO REVOLUTIONS: CIMETIERE DE PICPUS, Paris, France