Monday, December 9, 2013

Wall of the Disappeared


The cemetery in the village of Ploubazlanec on the North Coast area (Cotes d’Armor) of Brittany has a Wall of the Disappeared at Sea. In this area, many boys and men departed from the port of Paimpol to fish the long cod season on the banks of Iceland or Newfoundland for the better part of a year. As on Ouessant, many men died at sea and their bodies never returned to the home soil; mourners here too lacked the emotional closure of a proven death and a physical body as ritual focus—thus the array of homemade cenotaphs and plaques affixed to the wall in Ploubazlanec’s cemetery. 

The sight of local women grieving at the wall was first articulated in the best-selling novel Pêcheur d'Islande (Iceland Fisherman) (1886) by Pierre Loti (the pen name of Jules Viaud). In this sad tale of frustrated love and loss, a young fisherman Yann, like so many of his family, dies at sea far from home as his new bride, Gaud awaits his return, looking to sea from a high point in the village of Ploubazlanec beside a stone monument known as the ‘Widow’s Cross.’ 

As part of her tormented waiting, she goes to the wall and the nearby chapel, obsessively reading the family names that repeat for several generations. In her daily, repetitive visits to this site of memory and mourning, the premonition seizes her that a new plaque will soon be added for her missing husband.

Today the commune of Ploubazlanec is full of summer homes by the sea. In 1939, the graveyard wall was rebuilt and the homemade memorials to the lost at sea were moved into the sheltered porch of the nearby eighteenth-century chapel of Perros-Hamon. The original plaques have been replaced on the stone wall by durable marble slabs and simple, painted wooden plaques. The commune’s website encourages visitors to make a tour of this open air heritage museum of the past, to wander the streets now renamed to even better resemble Loti’s novel, to follow trails from the high points of land where women scanned the horizon for returning fishing boats, to the rebuilt wall of the disappeared and the chapel that houses its older plaques, to the chapels by the sea dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked.’
L’Illustration (1891)

In the 1890s and early 20th century, Illustrated Journals frequently reproduced images of women mourning at this wall to coincide with the autumnal observation of Toussaint or “Day of the Dead” (All Souls and All Saints Days) commonly seen in Brittany’s churchyard cemeteries. At the end of October or first week of November (in the 1890s and early 20th century), illustrated journals in Paris often featured these images  accompanied by descriptions or first person accounts of the ritual maintenance of the memory of the dead.  For instance, Swiss regionalist writer Adolphe Ribaux in 1901 echoes the melodrama of Loti as he describes being overwhelmed there by the spectacle of mass death : ‘To be lost at sea, this is surely the worst of deaths! … It is not necessary to be old to be in the middle of this funeral wall, covered in names, cruel symbol of the vanity of the dreams and the falsity of joy!’  

 Early twentieth-century post cards repeatedly depict the wall with and without mourners and popular journals such as the illustrated Parisian papers L’Illustration (1891) and Le Petit Journal (1924) feature the spectacle of collective grief at this wall on Le Jour des Morts (All Souls’ Day, November 2).

Paul Géniaux, c. 1905

To read more: see my article "Crosses, Cloaks and globes: women's material culture of mourning on the Brittany coast"

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