The Month of the Dead – learning about the Paris Morgue in Brompton Cemetery

We fear death almost as much as we are attracted to it. The gruesome, the morbid. As long as it’s not with us, or our loved ones. There is a reason why the true crime genre has had such a resurrection in the past few years. Understanding what happened, the why, and how. The twistier the better. Once again, as long as it’s far away. Not with us. Or anyone related.

I personally don’t enjoy true crime. I am not a fan of making crime a spectacle as Netflix so often does. It makes me anxious. It makes me cringe. Especially when we are talking about cases of victims whose families are still alive and hurting. Now, what I do like is to understand the mind behind the crime. The goosebumps I get when I realise anyone crossing my way during my daily life can be a psychopath, a potential murderer. And I also have a special curiosity about the process of decay of corpses. At some point, I toyed around with the idea of studying forensic sciences.

I wouldn’t consider myself a dark tourist – but I do enjoy visiting the last resting places of so many. I have not made a secret of my love for the Victorian cemeteries in the UK. How I love to go on long and slow walks amongst those who lie in eternal sleep. Admiring the different symbolisms of their graves, loving the aesthetic that nature produces when taking over, the strength of tree roots breaking the cement, and the wild grass hiding the names of the deceased.

But, if I had lived in the 1800s, would I have been drawn to the Paris Morgue as so many were? A place that so clearly made a spectacle of death?

I attended a talk in Brompton Cemetery about this topic. I visited the Paris Catacombs, in my opinion of the most interesting places to visit in Paris. But those are human bones, anonymous. Of course, I know those were people once, with names, with family, with friends, with dreams. With flesh and skin, a beating heart. Yet, I had no idea that in the 1800s there was a public morgue in Paris where literally people will go to see dead bodies as part of their monthly entertainment. And free entertainment. La Morgue was called “the only free theatre in Paris”. It was located on Île de la Cité and moved in 1864 just behind Notre Dame – a very central location convenient for both the dead and the living.

But why display these dead bodies, collected from the street, to the public? Had they no sense of decency or respect for such poor souls? The official explanation is related to the need of recognising the identity of the corpses found in the streets and even sometimes in the Seine. The public was allowed to enter, look at the bodies and help with identification. In some instances, the murderers were also caught whilst visiting the Morgue. There was also a message to be told – this is what happens to you if you misbehave. You’ll end up dead in the dirty streets of Paris, or your body phished from the Seine. And then, hundreds of people will see your decomposing naked body on display…

A corpse is carried out through the morgue, c. 1840s. PUBLIC DOMAIN

It couldn’t have been pretty. The bodies were stripped naked and frozen before being put on public display. The morgue wasn’t refrigerated until 1882, meaning that cold water would drip from the ceiling constantly, providing a constant bloated appearance to the bodies. A crowd of 50 people would be allowed to look at the bodies through a glass window, but after 3 days they would start to decompose and would have to be removed. This was such an attraction, that even street vendors would be selling souvenirs outside of the morgue.

A group of people, including children, looking through glass to identify cadavers (a double suicide from England) on view. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE/ PUBLIC DOMAIN

It closed to the public finally in 1907, after being an open tourist attraction for over 100 years. Known personalities such as Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Edgar Allan Poe were visitors of the Morgue – either led by scientific curiosity, morbid curiosity or trying to find inspiration for their own artistic endeavours… I do wonder if I would have been part of their visitor list. Something seems very wrong to me about all of this – but once again we are talking about times when public executions were an event “for the whole family”. Would I had been a citizen of the late 19th century, would I have been excited to see a public execution? Would I be queuing to see the last dead bodies at the Morgue? Would I spend my hard-earning coin on a little souvenir from La Morgue?

What about you? Would you visit La Morgue?

Love & Happy Halloween! 🎃

Nic

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