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
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:
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).
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
and their going forth from us,
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.
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