Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

December 11, 2008

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here.

(Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

“The place that death occupies in our society is ambiguous and has evolved a lot in less than a generation,” it said. “Death is omnipresent in films, video games, film clips and music. It is often staged in a violent way, with many effects that seems realistic, all the while being more and more ‘virtual’ for many young people. At the same time, the end of life — 516,000 people died in France in 2007 — is often a reality that is hidden and kept at a distance … the increase in cremation also helps to keep death at more of a distance … the relationship that young people have with death and graves has necessarily changed. Distancing death from life can cause indifference and eventually a loss of sense and respect. What is not known or put aside can progressively lose its sacred dimension.”

The report suggests that schools teach more about the death rituals of different cultures to inculcate more respect for the dead in young people. Police — but apparently not pupils — might also learn more about “religion in its cultural dimension” to understand the phenomenon better. This being an official report in France, it could not find fault with the official policy of laïcité, which is more aggressively secularist than just a policy of separation of church and state. But it’s hard not to sense a touch of nostalgia in it for an earlier French society that had more respect for its dead and (but don’t say this in public!) for religion.

(Photo: Desecrated Jewish graves in France, 31 Oct 2004/Vincent Kessler)

The full report is only in French and not yet posted on a website. We’ll link to it once it appears.

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