In 1990, my husband was teaching at the University of Paris VIII, and I had the gift of time to explore the incredible city. High on my priority list was a visit to the tomb of Marie-Joseph-Yves Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette. One afternoon I set out to the Cimetière Picpus, the only private cemetery in Paris where visitors are permitted. When I found Number 35, there was only a small wooden door in the middle of a tall, forbidding wall. I could see nothing of the cemetery, so I gingerly opened the door and found myself standing in a large cobblestone courtyard. Across the courtyard was a stone wall and a small chapel, but there was no cemetery in sight.
A gentleman who introduced himself as Monsieur Faugeron, the caretaker, came out of a modest wooden building to greet me. In the best French I could muster, I explained that I was an American, a native of the hometown of La Fayette’s friend Thomas Jefferson, and an admirer of the marquis. Apparently Monsieur Faugeron did not receive many visitors from the United States, as he appeared most pleased, quickly grabbed his keys and led me to a gate on the opposite side of the courtyard.
There, a walk led us through a pristine grassy area to a second gated area. On the other side, he explained, was the final resting place of more than 1,300 people who were guillotined during June and July of 1794 at the Place du Trone, their bodies dumped here without notification to families or identification.
We moved on to the La Fayette gravesite. Because members of her family were buried in the mass grave, Madame de La Fayette chose this place for her own interment: She died in 1807. The marquis joined her on May 20, 1834, and, at his request, was buried in soil brought from Bunker Hill in Boston.
In August 1824, when he was 57 years old, Lafayette was accompanied by his son, George Washington La Fayette, on his last voyage to the U.S. His trip was at the invitation of President James Monroe to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary and extended to September 1825. Traveling more than 6,000 miles, this hero of the American Revolution visited each of the 24 states, where the citizens received him with great enthusiasm. His personal visit with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Nov. 4-15, 1824, was a grand occasion. The climax of his visit was a public banquet in the unfinished Rotunda attended by Jefferson and Madison.
As his tour was drawing to a close in 1825, La Fayette returned to Albemarle for a last visit with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Jefferson’s heath was failing, and he was unable to attend the second dinner in La Fayette’s honor given at the University of Virginia, which had opened to students that March. Students approached La Fayette to offer an invitation for honorary membership in the University’s Jefferson Literary and Debating Society.
The gravesite is raised and flanked by an American flag that has flown continuously since the end of World War I. At La Fayette’s death in 1834, President Andrew Jackson ordered that the French general be given the same funeral honors as John Adams and George Washington.
My host was well versed in the long-standing relationship between our two countries and appreciated the regard Americans have for La Fayette.
To my surprise, he stepped up on the grave, saluted the flag and looked at me. Not quite certain what was expected of me, I also saluted my country’s flag. Satisfied, Monsieur Faugeron lifted the flag from its standard, hopped down and handed the flag to me. Now I really had no idea what to do.
Monsieur Faugeron moved up beside me, and, with his direction, we marched around the perimeter of the cemetery in perfect step with one another. When we had come full circle, he again got up on the grave and returned the flag to its proper position.
As we left the cemetery, I was shown the bench that commemorates the visit of Gen. John J. Pershing, who led U.S. troops to the grave of La Fayette on July 4, 1917, three months after the U.S. formally entered World War I.
It was on this spot that Col. Charles Stanton declared, “La Fayette, we are here!” to the cheers of Parisian onlookers. My host offered me a seat on the bench and proudly told me that the mayor of Lafayette, La., had sat in that very spot.
La Fayette, I was there and was honored to carry the American flag in tribute to you.