The “Sepulcher” of Antoine Lavoisier
The article tells the random discovery made during a short stay in Paris, in search of the places of the history of chemistry. The visit to the catacombs of Paris, one of the many tourist destinations, made us known, through an exhibition set up there, where are the mortal remains of the father of chemistry.
The tomb of the Great: the Pantheon
France has always honored its citizens who have been great in science, the arts, as well as in politics and war, giving them the highest honors and dedicated a temple, the Pantheon, where they are buried. We find in its crypts the graves of the spouses Curie, Lagrange, Voltaire, Rousseau and many other dozens and dozens of illustrious personalities. Pasteur’s tomb is located in a majestic mausoleum inside the Pasteur Institute.
The Catacombs of Paris
But the tomb of one of the greatest scientists that France honors is neither in the Pantheon nor anywhere else. So where are Antoine Lavoisier’s mortal remains? Before giving an answer, it is necessary that we introduce ourselves into the Parisian subsoil. During a stay in Paris a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a place of particular cultural interest that was not reported in the guides I consulted. These are the Catacombs of Paris and the name does not have, as we will see, a direct link with the Christian catacombs (the following images represent the catacombs, but for a more complete and commented view see the PDF at the bottom of the article).
How the catacombs are born
Until the Roman age, limestone was extracted from the subsoil, where Paris stands, which provided material used in construction. The extraction lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. As the city expanded, the network of tunnels, produced by the mining activity, which came to be under it, ceased to be exploited and was therefore abandoned. The length of this tunnel network, which mainly spans seven of the city’s twenty departments, is estimated to reach one hundred kilometers. The “catacombs” represent a small part of this immense maze of galleries. They are about two kilometers long, and are located at a depth of twenty meters. It is accessed from an entrance located on the edge of Denfert Rochereau square in the Montparnasse district.
The visit to the catacombs
You go down into the quarries through a narrow and steep staircase. The scene that presents itself to the visitor is of great emotional impact. At the sides of the galleries, for nine hundred meters, piles of human bones are piled up behind walls made of overlapping bones in an orderly way to form a decorative facade. The bones are estimated to be the remains of around six million people.
But where did they come from? The numerous cemeteries built over the centuries close to the churches within the city limits, due to intense urban growth, were no longer able to expand.
The Cemetery of the Innocents
It was decided to use in the twelfth century a large piece of land located near the future district of Le Halle where the burials took place in mass graves, mainly intended for poor people. The cemetery took the name of Cemetery of the Innocents, from the church that stood nearby. The practice of mass burials also extended to other cemeteries. The cemetery was used until the end of the eighteenth century, becoming one of the largest cemeteries in Paris. The hygienic conditions had become so serious that the authorities decided, especially following the protests of the population, its closure, the exhumation of the bodies and the moving of the bones to the place that was identified to accommodate them, the old quarries in the Montparnasse area, which since then they have been called “The catacombs”.
The catacombs become a huge cemetery
The transport of the remains began in April 1786 and continued until 1788. Every evening, at nightfall, the remains, transported on wagons, were accompanied in procession to the ossuary. It then continued until 1814 to transport the bones from all the parish cemeteries of the city to the catacombs following the new rules on the burial of the dead which prohibited burials in places located within the city walls and next to the churches.
The dead of the French Revolution
With the advent of the Revolution, places where needed to bury those who had been tried by the extraordinary criminal court and executed by guillotine. The Cemetery of the Errancis ( The cripples) was built for this purpose. There where deposited the bodies of 1119 people, victims of terror between the year 1794 and the year 1795. They were buried in graves. Lavoisier was executed on 8 May 1794 and transported to the Cemetery of the Errancis (the Cripples). Two days later, the king’s sister was executed and thrown into the same large pit.
Executed and executioners in the same mass grave
But, ironically, the bodies of the executed and the executioners came to be found close, in the same moat. Thus the body of Maximilien de Robespierre was brought to the same place, executed a month later on 28 July. A few months preceded the latter by another protagonist of the period of terror, Georges Danton, executed on May 30, 1794 and then also transported to the Errancis cemetery. The great accuser of the Revolutionary Tribunal Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville suffered the same fate, who had requested and obtained, in the seventeen months that he occupied the office, the death of two thousand people. Among these was Lavoisier.
Lavoisier is convicted
After the death sentence was handed down against him, Lavoisier asked Fouquier for an extension to allow him to finish an experiment he had in progress. He was told: ‘The republic needs neither scientists nor chemists, the course of justice cannot be suspended’. Fauquier was executed on 6 May 1795 and his body thrown into the same grave as his victims
The closure of the Errancis Cemetery
Errancis Cemetery was closed four years, after its opening, in 1797. The land on which it had arisen was located right next to the walls that the Ferme Générale (a company of financiers appointed by the king of tax collection) had built from 1784 to 1791. The walls were twenty-four kilometers long and completely surrounded Paris. They allowed the Ferme to control the goods that entered the city and ensure the collection of taxes. These balzelli were very unpopular, the Ferme was seen as an institution of the Ancien Régime, it was said in verse “Ce mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant”, which translates as “This wall surrounds Paris and makes Paris murmuring “.
Lavoisier’s remains journey ends
It will be this hatred of the people towards Ferme and its wall that will be the cause of Lavoisier’s death sentence. He was executed along with twenty-eight Fermiers généraux. Despite being an honest and rigorous administrator of Ferme, he will be convicted of the role of Fermier généreau he had played. After the period of terror, the cemetery had finished its function. For almost fifty years it was abandoned. Until the bones from the cemetery were moved between 1844 and 1859 to the Catacombs. The land, on which the cemetery was located, was to be used to build the Boulevard de Courcelles there. This is where the journey of Lavoisier’s remains ends. His remains are located in this immense “Le Catacombe” ossuary.