I recently participated in a guided visit of the Cimetiere Vieux, the old cemetery in Beziers. I’ve always been fascinated by the cemeteries in France, they have a very different look to the cemeteries of other countries that I have visited.
The old cemetery in Beziers was established following an imperial decree of 1804, which stipulated that cemeteries must be located outside the walls of a town. Before that, burial grounds were located next to the churches, and people would also have been buried inside the churches (in crypts or under the floor) – it probably all became a little too crowded!
The town planners of Beziers chose land north of the city walls, which formed part of the plateau on which the town was built. The cemetery was built in two sections, the first opened in 1812, with an extension opening in 1863. When finished, the Cimetiere Vieux covered 5 hectares – just over 12 acres.
The establishment of the cemetery coincided with a growing prosperity of the town and its citizens. The same people who built elaborate town and country houses to display their new wealth also built elaborate tombs, often employing the same architects! The nouveaux riches wanted to show off both in the here-and-now AND in the ever-after. They went to great lengths to build beautiful monuments, which have been passed down the generations.
The guided visit was very interesting, although it felt a little haphazard at times. There were nearly 100 visitors, so the crowd was split into four groups, who all started in different directions! At the end of the visit, our guide handed out a plan of the cemetery, which showed the locations of over 130 tombs, remarkable in one way or another.
There are over 3900 burial plots in the cemetery, and they were sold off as concessions en perpetuite, the burial plot being held in perpetuity. Once a plot was bought, the owner could build the tomb to their taste and means, within certain limits. Those who could afford to, would engage the services of fashionable architects and sculptors.
Beziers was birthplace and/or home to several well-known sculptors, whose work adorns many tombs. Beziers’ most famous sculptor was Antonin Injalbert (1845 – 1933), whose work is exhibited at the Musee Fayet in Beziers (I’ll be writing about that museum at some point). He was a prolific artist, and you can find a good many of his works in the cemetery:
The work of Jean Magrou (1869 – 1945), is also well represented:
Jacques Villeneuve (1865 – 1933) sculpted this reclining statue:
The painter, sculptor and ceramicist Louis Paul (1854 – 1922) created several sepulchres.
The Cimetiere Vieux is famous for its pleureuses, its statues of weeping women:
Architectural styles were varied, and presumably followed the prevailing fashions of whenever they were built.
There are many more pictures I could add to this post, but I don’t want to bore you. The best thing is for you to visit the Cimetiere Vieux and see for yourself!! I’ll finish the post with one last picture of a statue which is my favourite out of all the ones I photographed – I think it has a wonderful style and elegance to it. Somehow I was so taken with the statue that I failed to note who the sculptor was – that gives me a good excuse to go back to the Cimetiere Vieux, to find out!
The Cimetiere Vieux is located on Avenue du Cimetiere Vieux, and is open daily from 8am to 6pm. You may want to check with the tourist office in Beziers, to see if they offer any guided visits.