Saturday 5 October 2013

Voltaire: burial of an infidel

As the end of May 1778 approached, it became clear that Voltaire’s “recantation” of 2nd March would not suffice; the cure of Saint-Sulpice still threatened to refuse burial. Public interest was keen. Archbishop de Beaumont appreciated the need for discretion and connived at a meeting between Voltaire’s nephew, the abbé Mignot, and Lenoir, the Lieutenant of Police. It was agreed that, to expedite the quiet removal of Voltaire’s corpse from Paris, his body would be transported Ferney as though alive; to aid in the deception Voltaire’s great-nephew, Dompierre d'Hornoy, was furnished with a letter approving Voltaire’s passage across France should he die en route

The astute abbé Mignot, brother
of Madame Denis and
 nephew of Voltaire.
 Institut et Musée Voltaire
Following this plan, immediately after Voltaire’s death, on the night of the 30th/31st May, his body was hurriedly embalmed. Heartless and brainless though it was, the corpse was dressed in gown and nightcap, and strapped upright into Voltaire's distinctive star-spangled carriage. At 11.45pm on the 31st it set off into the dark with only a servant in attendance, closely followed by a second coach containing Dompierre d’Hornoy and two male cousins.

The abbé Mignot had long since abandoned any idea of travelling to Ferney and and settled on a much closer destination, the Cistercian monastery at Sellieres in Champagne, where he was nominally abbot. Fully equipped with certificates from the abbé Gaulter and M du Tertre, Mignot went on ahead to prevail upon the (reluctant) local prior Dom Potherat de Corbierres to permit Voltaire's burial. The coach bearing Voltaire arrived in late afternoon.

At Provins, on the border of Champagne, we are told that an innkeeper - Monsieur Lévêque, proprietor of the Golden Cross - recognised Voltaire and tried to offer him some broth, only to be met with silent refusal. "Official biographers" preferred to believe Voltaire's entourage ordered the broth to deceive the innkeeper and fellow travellers along the route. More than likely the whole incident was apocryphal: "the dreadful cortège stopped at no inn, alighted at no post-house"(Tallentyre, Life of Voltaire (1905) p.558)

Print of 1854 - this doorway no longer exists

The funeral which followed was a bizarre mixture of the makeshift and the splendid. The body was placed in a plain deal coffin (still apparently in existence) and, accompanied by Mignot in full ecclesiastical rigout, set in the chancel of the chapel surrounded by candles. Dom Meusnier, the only other permanent resident of the semi-derelict abbey kept an overnight vigil with some lay assistants. The following day a requiem mass was celebrated, attended by various local ecclesiastics and a congregation of sixty somewhat unenthusiastic parishioners. The great philosophe was then laid to rest to the sound of marsh frogs in a hole expeditiously dug in the centre of the chapel floor.  Poor Dom Potherat was left to face the music from the bishop of Troyes, though thoughtfully provided with  letter of defence stating that Voltaire was not officially excommunicated.  Mignot, leaving nothing to chance, published all the relevant letters in Grimm's Correspondance littéraire. There was much rumination and recrimination, but on the whole it seemed best to do nothing; Voltaire's burial was (at least temporarily) a fait accompli.


Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty (2005), p.387-390.

“La mort de Voltaire” Association Romilly patrimonie (Romilly-sur-Seine),fr,8,76.cfm

Biblionomadie et Voltaire by Eric Poindron, 24 November 2008.,1018.html

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