By Stella Boni
«Le temp passe
Le souvenir reste»
One of the most beautiful and broad views of the city, with a nice cool breeze and the sound of sea eagles and waves is the place where people with no eyes to see, skin to feel or ears to hear rest.
Unlike many other cities on the Mediterranean part of France that give a utilitarian end to its high places, with castles and observation points, or even an economic end like the biggest and most expensive houses, in Menton that privileged place is for the dead. That’s a direct symbol of how Menton’s tradition sees their oldest people and ancestors. Maybe we don’t pay too much attention to it and it is likely that you’ve never been to this city’s graveyard, but cemeteries are actually a symbol of how people honor their oldest, how they face death (or avoid it) and, even more than that, how people perceive life itself.
Rochefoucauld has an aphorism that says “Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement” (“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly”) meaning that we cannot see death itself, directly speaking, but only its reflection in those living. That metaphysic point of view helps us understand that it’s not death, but the value of Life that is translated in graves and epitaphists. Even though generalizations are very complicated, we can say that most societies we know relate to their ancestors by worshipping them in some way. In order to be reminded by forthcoming generations, people have to remind their ancestors; it’s a chain that leads us to the fear of vanishing. That reference takes place on daily life when what moves people forward is a search for being reminded for what they did or for who they were and, in a way, the pursuit of immortality. The idea of immortality in each society has a different form (by it’s adoration or denial), but in Christian societies it’s the representation of God himself –perfection, omni-consciousness and immortality.
According to orthodox churches it was a tradition to bury those who passed away inside the churches, supine and east-west oriented. This way on the Judgment Day they’d see the coming of Christ and would be welcome to the house of God (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). Since the church Saint-Michel was built, in 1653, Menton people used to be buried inside it. The tradition was kept until the year of 1804, when, for sanitary conditions and epidemic problems, Napoleon made the decree (‘décret du 23 prairial an XII’) which forbid bodies to be buried inside churches and therefore they should be concentrated in a common specific location. The official story is that the land of the old Castle up the hill still belonged to the prince of Monaco. By that time the building was basically ruins, but the revolutionary authorities in Menton were interested in it and the town had paid the amount of 5341 francs to buy the land.
But why did the mentonese people put their dead in the Vielle Châteu hill? There’s no documents proving the final reason for that choice, but if we follow the trail of Christian traditions that were very strong in Menton, specially at that time, we can say that people still wanted their family to be close to God and in a beautiful and peaceful place. If they were supposed to be taken off the God’s House, then they had to be metaphorically closer to heaven.
A quick walk through Menton and some other stories.
In the graveyard you can realize that many people died very young. Since the 1860’s and doctor James H. Bennett’s article about the perfect weather conditions in the French Mediterranean boarder, Menton was a common destination for people suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases. Having to increasingly deal with these deadly diseases and the hopelessness that comes from them, it’s possible to notice a growth in the influence that religion had in the city.
You can also find many Russian ministers, and the polonaise princes. William Webb Ellis, the inventor of modern Rugby, is also buried in Menton’s cemetery. The Anglican clergyman born in …. came to Menton after his retirement and died here on 1872. The Mentonese devoutness seems to be in every single aspect of the construction of the city and it is present even on the old city streets. Names of saints and images of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus are in Rue Long, Lampedose and many other streets.
That strong link between Menton and the Christian religion also helps us to understand a part of the resistance that the south of France had against the Arabic immigration that started in 1960’s. But that’s an analysis for another paper.