Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The ossuary at Marville
Rough Map of Area


Marville and its bones

Ornamentation on the walls

Spanish styled ornamentation can still be seen on some of the walls

Not far from the towns of Montmédy and Stenay is the picturesque town of Marville which once hosted a unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
It is quite small but certainly much grander than the surrounding villages. Lots of the local yellow stone — not a torchy wall in sight.

Towards the end of the 12th Century the Duke of Bar, Thiébaut I, had constructed a fortress on the site of the present town. Over the next few centuries the town would prosper and pass from one dynasty to another as marriages wove their intricate web of alliances.

By the 15th Century the town had become a possession of the Dukes of Burgundy and from them passed into the possession of The Holy Roman Empire. When Charles Quint became both King of Spain and Emperor in 1519, the town found itself within the Spanish Netherlands.

The town of Marville

This is a very pretty town and wandering about the streets there are numerous touches on the the façades of the houses which, I have read, owe their style to the Spanish Renaissance. When Marville was taken by the French (They would say — liberated) in the 17th Century, Louis XIV decided that having a secondary fortress so close to Montmédy and the frontier with the Netherlands, was not a good idea and order the dismantlement of the defences. However, parts of the old walls still exist.

The town square

The Cemetery

Decimal49.45805.4510 Map

Although not far from the opening battlefields of the Great War, Marville is famous for dead people that go back centuries.

Even if you only find yourself passing through go and visit the cemetery on the hill opposite.

One of the oldest in France it is one of the few (if not the only) classified structures of its kind.

The pieta in the cemetery

Situated on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the 12th Century church of St Hilaire served as the parish church up until the 13th century when the townspeople decided that it was a hell of a long walk and constructed a new within their midst.

The cemetery however remained in use and contains numerous gravestones from the 15th to the 18th centuries and these are particularly rare.

Once the trees have lost their leaves there must be some fine views towards Marville. The cemetery is entered near the guardian’s cottage and thankfully there is a plan showing the layout.

Part of the cemetery

In medieval times there was a leper colony nearby whose deceased added greatly to those of the local residents. Back in the old days the custom was to gather the bones in an ossuary but of course they slowly took up more and more space and the problem with the cemetery was that its position meant that it could not be expanded.

It may not be possible to get into the church but it would seem that, around 1875, some of the more precious headstones were moved into it and this was the first section of the ensemble to be classified as a historic monument.

At the entrance to the cemetery there is a crucifix called the Christ of the Lepers and within the grounds there is Piéta dedicated to their suffering. This latter dates from the 15th century as do the four stones placed in front of it showing the 11 apostles — Judas is missing.

Around the church is the historic section of the graveyard and although there are a few upgraded plinths they are in the minority. The yellow chalk used in many of these headstones and sculptures adds to the renaissance feel to the churchyard.

Amongst these old stones is a line of new crosses all dedicated to Canadians.

The Ossuary of St Hilaire

Everybody else was just piled up

The great unwashed were merely piled high

In 1890 the cemetery keeper, Constant Motsch decided that the simplest method of creating more space was to recover the bodies from the older graves that did not have a perpetual concession.

He did not, however, just gather up the skeletons but also organised and categorised them. He decided, though, to only keep the skulls and longer bones.

Not wishing to mix the lords and notables of the land amongst the commoners he placed their skulls in boxes which he marked with the details of the owner. There are 29 of these men and women who all died between 1780 and 1860.

The heads of more notable townspeople

Their skulls look out through their boxes like the faces on a clock.

Sadly the boxes have weathered in time, but ultimately they and their contents serve as a reminder that in death, the great and the lowly are treated with an equality that may not have been their lot whilst alive.

You will become us

Above their heads reads: We were like you — You will become like us.

The Canadian Memorial

The Canadian memorial

As you leave the grounds you will see a monument made of the same stone as the Canadian crosses and this explains their presence.

Marville served as a NATO airbase and was occupied by the Royal Canadian Air Force between 1952-67. Forty-one airman or family members were buried within the grounds and some of them in the older section.

The crosses fell into disrepair and they have now been replaced. As some of the old crosses had been lost those burials are now commemorated on the monument which was erected in August 2003.