Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996

Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996

Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996

Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996


'Written in a clear, direct style, with little jargon, and theory largely limited to how these ceremonies were conceived and received at the time they took place, this is a refreshing and always interesting commentary upon one way in which the French have sought to express their diverse political identities over two centuries of waning commitment to public religious values.' -Journal of Ecclesiastical History'The ongoing presence of monarchical tradition, peculiar to French Republicanism, is emphasised to good effect... With the excellent index, this book becomes a useful reference tool.' -English Historical Review'Innovative.' -French History'The exceptional richness of this book will make it - for a long time - a work of reference that wonderfully illustrates the new ways of doing political history.' -AnnalesThis is a study of the state funerals that were celebrated in France between the French Revolution and the death of François Mitterrand. It investigates the funerals of such prominent figures as Voltaire, Napoleon, Gambetta, Hugo, and de Gaulle, which became major public events that helped to mould the national memory. The book is the first comprehensive analysis of French state funerals, and also a major contribution to the study of French political culture.


In Jean Anouilh's Antigone, Creon, the king of Thebes, makes a last and desperate attempt to change the mind of recalcitrant Antigone, who insists on giving her brother, the traitor Polyneices, a decent funeral. Creon tells her of the funeral that he organized for the other brother, Eteokles, who died while defending Thebes against Polyneices:

Yesterday I gave Eteokles a grand funeral. Eteokles is now a hero and a saint of Thebes. All
the people were there. the schoolchildren gave all the pennies in their money boxes to buy
a wreath; the elders, putting on a solemn air, praised with a tremulous voice the good
brother, the loyal son of Oedipus, the faithful prince. I also made a speech. and all the
priests of Thebes were there, with their figurehead. and the military honours … It had to
be done.

Creon then reveals to her the terrible secret that the good Eteokles was also a traitor who tried to assassinate him and betray his country. Moreover, the bodies of the two brothers who killed each other on the battlefield were disfigured beyond recognition. Creon, who 'had to make one of them a hero,' ordered that the less damaged corpse be picked for his 'national funeral' and the other be left to rot in the field.

The king's only criterion for choosing the body was, then, aesthetic. the person who was to be the subject of the rite mattered less than the act that consecrated the values for which he had presumably died. All the same, there had to be a person, and a famous one, for a funeral without a body would be an empty gesture. the symbolic act that put Eteokles in the annals of Thebes was accompanied by another symbolic act whose aim was opposite: the effacement of any trace of Polyneices' memory, beginning with his body.

The passage quoted above may be read like a description of a typical state funeral of the French Third Republic, the ruins of which were still visible in

Jean Anouilh, Antigone (Paris, n.d.), 92.

Ibid. 93–4. George Steiner associates the theme of the unrecognizable corpse with the memory of
the Great War, when such corpses were a common sight. See his survey of the myth of Antigone in
modern times, Antigones (Oxford, 1984), 141. On the value of the beautiful, unmutilated corpse and its
relation to the cult of the hero in ancient Greece, see Jean-Pierre Vernant, 'La Belle Mort et le cadavre
outragé', in id., L'Individu, la mort, l'amour: Soi-même et l'autre en Grèce ancienne (Paris, 1989), 41–79.

This effacement is, paradoxically, announced very loudly by Creon, for it is also a pedagogical
example that should be remembered.

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