In search of . . . May Alcott Nieriker

A few weeks ago I received an email from a reader (Claire) who lives in Paris, looking for information on where May Alcott Nieriker was buried. After researching it online, I discovered that she was buried at Montrouge Cemetery  just outside of Paris.

There was a map on the website which I sent to Claire, and I asked her if she could send me back a picture of the grave site. She came back with a lot more!

A sad story unfolds

From her email, I derived the following:

  • There is no existing grave in Paris anymore for May Alcott Nieriker because . . .
  • Graves back then (1879) were secured for only ten years.
  • Unless the remains were claimed by the family after such time, they go into a common grave.
  • There is now someone else in the site where she was originally interned.

Yet there is a paper trail

Claire spoke with the caretakers who were kind enough to point out where in the cemetery the grave had originally been (see the red box on the map), and allowed her to take a picture of the original register where May’s name is written:

In the 1870s, information at Montrouge was not organized in the same way as it is now (with everything computerized). Therefore, Claire was only able to find out that May had been buried in the 30th section. The cemetery is much larger now than it had been in 1879 which explains why, with the available information, it is not possible to exactly pinpoint where her grave had been.

What happened to
May’s remains?

Fortunately, Louisa had a stone made for her for the family plot in Concord. Lis Adams, Director of Education at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House was kind enough to provide this information:

” . . . Louisa had always intended to have May’s remains brought here to the United States, but wasn’t able to have it done before she died herself in 1888.  If no one from the family claims the remains after that certain period of time for which the grave is purchased, they are then moved to a common grave.  That is why you can’t find where May is buried in the cemetery.

One can only guess that with Louisa’s illness, and so many other things happening in the family (the father’s stroke in 1882, Lulu coming to live with the family in 1880, etc., etc.), it was just one of those things that didn’t get done.

However, May does have a grave marker, along with the rest of her family, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, despite the fact that her remains are not buried there.”

Louisa’s own words

Lis then provided quotes from Louisa’s journal, and from a letter she wrote to her cousin in Walpole, MA, Eliza Wells, regarding May’s death:

Louisa May Alcott, Journal, May 1880:
“Ordered a stone for May’s grave like Marmee’s and Beth’s, for some day I hope to bring her dust home.”

(Footnote says, “Although May’s ‘dust’ was never brought home, there is a marker for her, similar to those for the other Alcotts, in the family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” From The Journals of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern.)

Louisa’s letter to Elizabeth Wells, Jan. 14th, 1880:
Dear Lizzie,
     You will be glad to hear that in our last letters from Miss Plummer (who saw May often) she tells us how quietly the dear little child died in her sleep at 9 a.m. Dec. 29th.
She was buried in the cemetery of Montrouge, a pretty place where she once said when walking with E[rnest] before baby came, “If I die lay me here.”
     Miss P. knew an American clergyman who had met father at the West & was in Paris.  So he read the service at the funeral where E’s friends & May’s neighbors, all of whom loved & mourned her, met to pay her the last respect.  A simple, pretty funeral with flowers & sunshine in the little salon, loving people, & then with three carriages & a dozen gentlemen walking behind the hearse in French fashion, she was carried to her grave; all the men they met, rich or poor lifting their hats as the procession passed.  In a green corner of the quiet cemetery, where Miss P. says she shall watch over the new mound, lies our bright, happy May just as she wished to lie in the country she loved more than America.”
From The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (Myerson, Shealy, and Stern, editors)

Lovely funeral, sad ending

It’s disturbing to see the decayed condition of section 30, remembering May’s impressions of Montrouge back in 1879. It makes the fact of her missing remains all the more tragic (although I understand that the area around the cemetery is still quite lovely).

Personal reflections

I agree with Lis Adams that it must have grieved Louisa greatly not having May’s remains in Concord, in the family plot. Louisa’s own illness coupled with her responsibilities to Lulu, her family and her writing obviously made it impossible to follow through. One has to wonder, however, why some other family member or friend did not follow through since it was obvious Louisa could not. Was the family so accustomed to Louisa’s take-charge style  that they were incapable of stepping out on their own?

I happened to be blessed with an older sister who is strong like Louisa was, and she is the one we all turn to in a crisis. I do find it hard, however, to act without her guidance and automatically defer to her authority in all cases. Perhaps the Alcott family was like that too.

I wondered about May’s husband, Ernest but Lis explains that he did not live in Paris much after her death and traveled a great deal (even to South America) for his work. When Lulu was 10, she was returned to Ernest. Somewhere along the way, thoughts of May fell through the cracks.

Compelling end to a happy life

May’s death had always struck me as tragic. It seemed so sudden . . . unfair even, to someone who was seemingly born under a lucky star. Louisa remarked that “She always had the cream of things, and deserved it.” (The Journals of Lousia May Alcott, page 12).

Yet fate prevented her from enjoying the richness of motherhood, or reaching her true potential as a painter. Now, her remains lie in a common grave.

Ironically, as a Catholic, I celebrate today the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls). I am reminded of a scripture passage used in today’s liturgy, from the book of Wisdom:

The souls of the just
are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish,
to be dead;
and their passing away was thought
an affliction
and their going forth from us,
utter destruction.
But they are in peace. (Wisdom 3:1-3)

Rest in peace, May.

Note: My thanks to Claire for her amazing work, and to Lis Adams for contributions to this post.

Click to Tweet & Share: May Alcott Nieriker died in France – where was she buried? Is there a stone, a record? See what we found out http://wp.me/p125Rp-z3


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18 Replies to “In search of . . . May Alcott Nieriker”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting post. You have added to our knowledge of the fate of one member of the Alcott family. I do not find it difficult to believe that, with all LMA’s concerns in the years after May’s death, the remains did not get transferred. Also, she may not have realized that a time limit was involved.

    1. I agree, she had a lot on her plate. She was really quite ill (and her grief over May certainly must have contributed to that). Her strong control over the family though may have prevented action from taking place. It really struck me how no one else attempted to retrieve May’s remains. Louisa did understand there was some kind of time limit (at least that’s what her brief journal entry suggests) . Why didn’t Anna step forward? I realize she wasn’t the “take charge” type. What about male relatives in the family? I know Bronson couldn’t. It’s always dangerous to assume, but . . . assuming that distance and logistics made the transfer difficult, perhaps Louisa was the only one who could have pulled it off. And she was in poor health and responsible for so much already.

      I saw a revealing, brief journal entry from Louisa about May that gave me pause: “The money I invest in her pays the sort of interest I like. I am proud to have her show what she can do, and have her depend upon no one but me (my emphasis).” (page 12, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott)

  2. This was a fascinating post, Susan. Excellent research and excellent writing! I agree with you that often very strong-willed people are deferred to even when it is obvious that they are no longer in a position to command. I once watched the family of a famously independent celebrity flounder, unable to cope with the new reality, when this celebrity became non compos mentis. They kept deferring even when it was clear the celebrity was not in her right mind. The habit of a lifetime was too strong.

    1. I have often suspected that Louisa created her own problems because of her obsession with taking care of her family. The trauma that was Fruitlands and subsequent problems with poverty obviously cut very deep! She definitely preferred to be in control even if it created her own purgatory at times (and created, I think, a bit of a martyr complex in her). She was a commanding presence in the family and it is notable that the family pretty much dropped out of site after her death (which I suspect Anna might have preferred).

      As a further example, my dad grew up during the Depression and he was overly concerned at times with taking care of his family. With the precise mind of an engineer (which included superb math skills), he planned every last detail so that my mom was cared for after his death and we kids were provided with a healthy inheritance (which ultimately took care of my brother’s needs as he has medical issues). But he had one heck of a time letting go when it was his time to die (the hospice nurse noticed this).

      Louisa’s obsession with control and the care of her family was certainly understandable, and commendable.

  3. The timing of this post is almost eerie! I finally made it to Concord to visit Orchard house and Sleepy Hollow, and got to thinking about where May was buried. (I lived in Paris for a year in college.) a brief Internet search got me nowhere, but was so happy to see your post on this very subject! I think this has happened before with your blog, when you posted on a topic I had recently pondered. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, you made my day! That’s part of the reason why I started this blog, so that information you don’t normally find on the Alcotts can be found on the internet. I knew there had to be other folks like me who wanted to know more.

  4. Very interesting read! As someone who loves to walk through cemeteries I find this very saddening. I hate to see them disturbed or destroyed.

    Strange thing is someone at work was telling me they do the same thing over in Italy. That over in Italy space is needed and they see no reason to eat up valuable real estate for dead bodies.

    1. I found it disturbing as well, like there’s no respect for the dead. Over here, you are chastised for digging up American Indian burial grounds, it’s disrespectful to the dead. And they are hundreds of years old. Odd the way some European countries do this but they certainly don’t have the land mass we have.

  5. Thanks for providing this information. I had always assumed there was an actual grave to visit at Montrouge.

    It could have been that permission from Ernest was needed before May’s remains could be removed from the cemetery and sent elsewhere. He was her husband and next of kin. Louisa might have wanted to let some time pass before writing to him about it; and then it was too late.

    It is entirely possible that Louisa’s surviving relatives didn’t feel as passionately as she did about bringing May’s remains home.

    Harriet Reisen’s book, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”, sheds some new light on Ernest Niericker; new to me at least. The book contains a 1975 interview with a very elderly Lulu by Alcott biographer Madelon Bedell. Lulu revealed that her father was “a little bit about money.”

    Ernest used Lulu’s inheritance from Louisa to support his entire family. He also felt that Lulu should have received half of Louisa’s estate instead of a fourth. To that end, he wrote “horrible letters” to Lulu’s “darling Aunt Anna.” Lulu felt that stress over “the nasty money” hastened Anna’s death. Years later, Ernest objected to Lulu’s marriage because what remained of her inheritance went with her.

    1. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? Ernest would have needed to have been consulted. A lot happened after May passed with Louisa and Bronson’s health both declining precipitously and then their passing within days of each other. You could see how May could have been forgotten. Ernest, I believe, moved to South America at some point too. Did he not know about the rule of claiming the body within 10 years? We’ll never know.

      I remember reading in Reisen’s book about him, disturbing. It does make you wonder if he married May because she was an Alcott. I mean, she was 38 to his 20-something and even though she was vivacious and attractive, she was hardly pretty. Louisa was known around the world so it had to have crossed his mind. He didn’t fight to keep Lulu so maybe he really did grieve over May and only later thought about the money. Lots of things we may never know!

  6. My passion for this family started with Amos Bronson Alcott but soon came to encompass the whole family. Of course Louisa goes without saying but my interest in May soon followed. I was so very shocked & saddened by this on what was brought to light on May remains. I always thought May had a stable grave at Montrouge and hoped to visit it one day as I did with the rest of the family at Sleepy Hollow in Concord. Like yourself I have always had a passion for the Alcotts and did massive genealogical research on the Alcotts as well as the Mays. This news has grieved me deeply, for now, not only was this lovely golden haired lady denied full motherhood but denied a personal gravesite as well. Thank God Louisa had a stone marker placed for her at Sleepy Hollow. When I visited that cemetery back in the 80’s many people thought that May actually was buried there until I informed them that May’s true gravesite was
    in Paris. Is there no possible way that the common grave where May lies may be located within Montrouge? Thank you so very much and also Claire for this remarkable information.

    1. The practice of moving someone to a common grave after 10 years was very common in those days. Louisa had every intention of bringing May home but her poor health plus Bronson’s prevented her from doing so. I imagine she was aware of the practice and it must have pained her deeply.

      May’s story is very tragic thus heightening the interest in her. But without this chapter, she is a compelling young lady with a great story. I am hoping that someday, someone will put together a picture book of her paintings.

      Have you seen Bronson’s parents’ graves in Connecticut? I recently posted a story about a book and the author who found them: https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2012/06/25/hidden-treasures-in-connecticut/

      Tell us more about your genealogical research – sounds fascinating!

  7. Your post and this discussion was all so fascinating, thank you so much! I finally visited Orchard House last month and just loved learning more about Louisa and her family. I didn’t know much about May until I took the tour…the tour focused almost as much on May as it did Louisa (and Bronson too)…I really have a new appreciation for May Alcott and it is indeed so tragic how young she died…and now to hear about her hubby possibly marrying her for money? Wow…All in all such an intriguing family, so much to admire about them all…

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