In the most populated region of France, it is often difficult for families to find a place to bury their deceased. A critical situation which is linked to the lack of commitment of the municipalities, to the legal complexities of the concessions and to the demographic and land realities of the territory.
For tourists, strolling through the shaded alleys of the Père Lachaise cemetery, or placing small pebbles on the tomb of Gainsbourg or Simone de Beauvoir in the Montparnasse cemetery is more pleasure than melancholy. But anyone who has ever lost a loved one in Paris knows this very well and for a long time: finding a place for them in one of the capital’s fourteen cemeteries, in order to be able to visit them regularly or because the deceased was an inveterate Parisian, requires interpersonal skills… And money. The saturation of Parisian cemeteries is not a topical issue: since the 2000s, it has been difficult to make one’s voice heard at the concessions office of the cemetery service, which is located in the Père Lachaise cemetery (with more of 75,000 graves and 26,000 columbarium spaces). If it is obligatory for the municipal cemeteries to continually have free places for their citizens, in the capital, the deceased are too numerous to hurry to the gate to be able to keep their promise. And places are rare, too rare…
The capital has no less than 20 cemeteries, 14 of which are located within the city walls and 6 in the inner suburbs, covering an area of 422 hectares. And it is she alone who manages it: a daunting task. Because managing a cemetery, as Paris does through several companies it has created, involves maintaining green spaces, carrying out burials or cremations, ensuring the safety of equipment and the creation and allocation of concessions or making them available. This last procedure is delicate: the criteria that get in the way of the agents assigned to the case are numerous: apart from heritage graves (obviously excluded automatically but very numerous in the capital), the perpetual concessions must be more than thirty years, in a state of manifest abandonment, without any manifestation of the beneficiaries. To take the example of Père Lachaise, with more than 90% perpetual concessions, only a few dozen concessions are released each year.
In 2018, a report by the Court of Auditors painted a terrible picture of the situation of funeral equality in the capital: “a situation which is largely explained by the fact that, until 2007, the funeral concessions sold to the families were all perpetual concessions there,” it read. “The history of intramural Parisian cemeteries is linked to saturation”, recognized our colleagues from the Parisian Sylvain Ecole, head of department in charge of this area. Indeed, funeral overcrowding, Paris has been working for centuries to combat it. In history, cemeteries were built on the edge of cities (like Père Lachaise) but with urban sprawl, the increase in the Parisian population and therefore deaths in the 19th century.e century, the first signs of saturation were felt in the 1850s. At the time, the authorities had to create six other cemeteries, located in the inner suburbs: in Seine-Saint-Denis (La Chapelle, Saint-Ouen, Pantin ), in Val-de-Marne (Ivry, Thiais) and Hauts-de-Seine (Bagneux). In these cemeteries only, free places exist and at a lower cost for Parisians and inhabitants of the inner suburbs (222 euros for ten years in Thiais or Pantin, for example, against 830 euros for the same thing intramural). Which makes some opponents jump: “The Parisian intramural cemetery is reserved for the wealthy. A few years ago, we may have had waiting lists for Paris, but now it’s no longer possible,” said Michel Kawnik, president of the French Funeral Information Association, who made his calculations: 2017, only 171 places in the 14 intramural cemeteries were freed up for the approximately 5,000 purchase requests.
The solution that the town hall has recently found is to stop the sale of perpetual concessions, to launch and put on sale concessions for a limited period (10, 30 or 50 years). In 2020, a major operation was carried out to identify the abandoned concessions of Parisian heritage cemeteries and to rehabilitate them. A long procedure for taking over concessions (generally perpetual) was then launched. In three years, several reports of abandonment are sent to known families. Without response, a list of concessions was subject to administrative review and was published in the Official Bulletin. The city’s gravediggers were then authorized to collect the bones, which were then placed in the Paris ossuary according to their original cemetery (the crypt is installed behind the war memorial, the work of the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé). In the case where these concessions have a historic monument, the latter is restored to be transformed into a columbarium, or to accommodate several vaults in concessions of thirty years (which are negotiated 6,300 euros).
An already complex situation, made impossible by the Covid
Formerly the property of the Church, the cemeteries have belonged to the municipal public domain since 1791: any municipality must therefore have a specific land intended for burials, the development and maintenance of which are compulsory expenses. Objects of heavy legislation, cemeteries have become over the years for municipalities, expensive and difficult to manage. Especially in a pandemic situation.
The problem turned out to be particularly complicated when, in 2020, the Covid caused excess mortality in the region: according to an INSEE report dating from 2020, from March 2 to May 10, 2020, 79% additional deaths, all causes combined, were recorded among the inhabitants of the region, compared to the average of deaths occurring during the same period between 2015 and 2019. This excess mortality, which represents 44% of that observed at the national level, has first hit the north of the region, before spreading to the whole of Île-de-France. During the confinement period, its intensity remained the strongest in Seine-Saint-Denis and in the neighboring territories.
Some cemeteries in the Ile-de-France had found themselves in a particularly delicate situation as requests for burial in its cemeteries rained down. In Montreuil, for example, the number of burials “has been multiplied by two, even by three”, assured at the time Thierry Manteau, technical agent of the cemetery of Montreuil. If the very large cemetery had space, it lacked hands: “all day, the workers stay to be able to do chain digging”. The town hall of Montreuil had also had to set up temporary vaults for the bodies that it was impossible to repatriate to a foreign country. This is what has also blocked other cemeteries in the Ile-de-France, smaller, used to being on a tightrope, in terms of available places: in Mée-sur-Seine (Seine-et-Marne), the municipality decided in August 2021 the creation of a brand new cemetery after a saturation phenomenon linked to the excess mortality in 2020 linked to Covid and the unexpected number of burials. Unlike previous years, some bodies had been buried in the town, failing to be repatriated to their lands of origin, and the families had opted not to disturb the rest of their loved ones even more.
SIFUREP to the aid of municipalities
Contrary to what one might think, the management of cemeteries is a matter of capital public policy and the municipalities of Île-de-France find themselves in a particular situation: population density and the difficulty of obtaining land to enlarge or create cemeteries is a much more difficult task than elsewhere. Maria Maurer is director of the Syndicat funéraire intercommunal funéraire de la region parisienne (SIFUREP) They have pre-empted land in the inner suburbs and manage year after year to continue to bury, in particular in the cemetery of Pantin, which is enormous”, she nevertheless wishes to specify. For several years, it has ensured that the 108 member municipalities in the Ile-de-France – all legally responsible for the good performance of their cemeteries – are not helpless in the event of sudden or chronic problems of shortage of places. The Syndicate offers two-pronged support: the provision, within the framework of the public service delegation, of a central purchasing office to facilitate more equal access, but also legal assistance to enable municipalities to better manage their sepulchral domains, “because the municipalities are required at the regulatory level to have space available in the common ground, spaces where people can be buried for five years, but this is not the case everywhere today”, explains the one who sees there a crying lack of investment from the municipalities, for years. “Cemeteries are facilities that require a lot of investment, budgets allocated to maintenance, cleanliness, security, green spaces and concession takeovers. But it’s been several years that some communities have fallen behind on the concessions, because it requires a lot of investment to investigate, to launch the procedure, to break a monument, to send a body to the ossuary. We would not experience such tension if there had been enough resources allocated to respecting the deceased, ”regrets the director.
SIFUREP offers municipalities a solution in pre-litigation, because they are often reluctant to tackle old concessions, for fear of finding themselves in conflict with the rights holders. “Little by little, the Syndicate created legal tools that we offered to the municipalities,” explains Naïma Ghouas, head of the central purchasing and funeral consultations. The Syndicate therefore offers its municipalities the benefit of the expertise of a service provider in the takeover of concessions, in order to remove an administrative task and possibly a burden on their conscience. The Syndicate also intervenes regularly in the region on the issue of confessional squares, which correspond to a growing need of the multicultural population of the Ile-de-France region. “In the past the bodies went back to the country, but now there is an attachment to France, the family is there, the grandchildren too, so people want to keep their deceased while respecting their traditions”, explains Maria Maurer. A question that is not so trivial for the municipalities of the Ile-de-France region, which are not legally required to offer these spaces to their constituents: “the confessional squares have their own rules (orientation of the tomb towards Mecca, impossibility of burying the head / spade, for example) and offering them or maintaining them in a context of saturation is a real political choice”.
“Some mayors receive exemptions from people who do not live in their municipality, for lack of a Muslim square in their municipality, for example. Sometimes we have families in Mantois, in Yvelines who go to make requests for exemption in Val-de-Marne, where they can find a place, “said Abdelaziz El-Jaouhari, president of the mosque of Mantes Sud and coordinator of the Muslims of Mantois. The man, however, welcomed the news when, in March 2022, the municipality of Saint-Denis announced the opening of a Muslim square facing Mecca, in order to avoid future saturation in the sector.