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    The extraordinary durability of a sand cemetery in the Basque Country (FRANCE)

    23 July 2023

    Cemeteries are special places. 

    Spaces dedicated to the absent, they are a projection of what the alive want to show their loved ones, with all the diversity that represents. 

    From the exuberant to the simple, from the ostentatious to the pared-down, graves have, over the years, competed in creativity or banality, making some cemeteries attractive and romantic, while others are austere or sinister.  

    Perhaps because the representation of death is not an easy thing. It’s often a reality whose arrival we put off, and the architecture of the grave tends to pay homage to the earthly life of the departed rather than evoking their spiritual one.  

    This seems to be the case in most cemeteries. Servants of Mary cemetery in Anglet is a complete exception to the norm.  

    In a space set in the dunes, protected by a pine grove, a blink of an eye from the beaches and crowded restaurants of the coast, lies a modest alignment of sand blocks, blending into the landscape.

    It’s a singular cemetery, where soil and graves merge into the same material, linking the departed to the elements in an extreme and magnificent bareness. 

    Seven shells form a cross on each of these tumuli (five on the top and one on each side) of perfectly identical dimensions, and a small shrub waves its foliage at the head of each of these tombs, which appear so fragile in their ephemeral construction. 

    The first impression is striking. Two avenues of cypress trees planted in the shape of a cross punctuate the landscape, the only vertical element in all this horizontality. 

    The silence is total, civilization seems so far away. You find yourself striding forward in hushed tones, feeling an immense sense of serenity. There’s nothing but peace and lightness here, as if death is just a formality on the way to the afterlife. Benches at either end of the path are welcome, as it’s essential to pause for a moment in this unreal setting, filled with poetry, compassion and humility.  

    The history of this place is extraordinary. 

    In November 1838, Father Louis-Édouard Cestac, then vicar of Bayonne Cathedral, bought a farm here, which he was forced to pay for on credit. This purchase, out of all proportion to his means, was motivated by a noble cause. He had to create a place where the prostitutes of Bayonne could go for help and protection. Indeed, this young priest already had a reputation in this port city, where poverty was hitting the young female population hard.

    As soon as he was appointed to the cathedral in 1831, he was moved by the ragged orphans who roamed the streets to survive, and in 1836 he founded a home for them in a house lent by the Bayonne commune, called “Le grand Paradis”. When the prostitutes came knocking at his door, he found himself faced with a problem of conscience: while it seemed impossible to have them live under the same roof as the orphans, it was equally unthinkable to refuse them asylum. So he went into debt to buy the estate he would call “Notre-Dame du Refuge”. 

    A group of young girls soon moved in, along with volunteers, including her sister Elise, to supervise, educate and assist them. In January 1842, the young educators became the first Servants of Mary. 

    The marginalized girls did not join the Servants of Mary community, but a few years later, a small group of these “repentant” prostitutes, who had come to work the dunes to help an old man on his land, agreed on a profound desire to devote themselves to a solitary life. In 1851, the Bernardines contemplative community was established within the Congregation of the Servants of Mary. 

    It took a lot of hard work by Abbé Cestac and the young women of the congregation to first survive on the site and then pay off the debts incurred when the land was purchased. The Abbé also sought to make the most of the land. Discharged from his duties at the cathedral in 1850, he became a farmer and transformed Notre Dame du Refuge into a place of agricultural experimentation and innovation. His farm became a model for the region’s farmers.  

    At the same time, from 1851 onwards, the Servants of Mary congregation began to expand through its schools. Concerned  for the education of rural girls, Father Cestac opened small communities in the villages to run schools, care for the sick and assist the parish priest. At Notre-Dame-du-Refuge, life flourished. Louis- Édouard Cestac was a Jules Ferry before his time, and a precursor of social welfare.  

    In 1856, he said: 

    “The seed that germinates overnight lasts only a few days; that which seems to sleep for years in the earth produces trees that span centuries.”  

    He died in 1868, and his reputation was that of a Saint. In fact, he was beatified at Bayonne Cathedral on May 31, 2015 by Cardinal Amato. 

    And what about the cemetery? 

    It was set up with the same philosophy as the entire congregation. Most of the girls who were taken in came from the surrounding countryside. When the first deaths occurred, they reproduced what they knew: a small mound of earth which, given the location, became a mound of sand. The shells they picked up on the beach were gradually replaced by scallops. The shell was the symbol of a mystical life in search of the precious pearl.


    This cemetery, reserved for the congregation, was authorized in June 1854 and now boasts more than 300 identical sand graves, which the members of the community, with the help of volunteers, redo every Easter according to the same principle. 


    They use a mold, like the castles children make on the beach, which they fill with packed, waterlogged sand.

    In this way, the mounds survive the year and can withstand all kinds of weather without too much damage. The shrub shrub, planted at the head of the sand mound, is the only sign of differentiation. A lavender plant for the Bernardines, golden charcoal for the Servants of Mary and boxwood for the girls, now replaced by simple charcoal (due to the boxwood borer).

    No other distinctive sign, neither name nor title. As the cross is materialized on the tomb by the shells, the plant recalls the living. It is a sign of hope, for even in sand, life can be reborn. 

    How can we fail to be moved by such simplicity and authenticity? 

    The community continues the social vocation initiated by Abbé Cestas, now supported by an association, just as it continues to work the land and sell vegetables on site.  

    In the heart of the hyper-dense urban metropolis of B.A.B. (Bayonne. Anglet. Biarritz), a small group of women are keeping alive a legacy of generosity and solidarity.  

    It is through a cemetery as ephemeral as sand – that which flows through the hands of fate – that they leave this world in anonymity. Yet, fragile as it may be, this place stands up to wind and tide, thanks to the simple desire of an entire community that never ceases to maintain it. 

    What a wonderful lesson in mutual aid and humility! 

    Text from Claudia Gillet-Meyer & photos by Régis Meyer


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