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Regardless of one’s country of residence, a person can expect death to be definitive—absolute and irrefutable. In the U.S., a person’s gravesite can also be considered definitive—it is generally a burial plot that has been purchased outright, never to be disturbed.
But this is not so in France! There, graves are leased, and failure to renew the lease can result in the exhumation of the remains of the deceased. Each cemetery is governed by the laws of the municipality in which the cemetery is located. The term of the lease, or concession (from as little as five years to perpetuity); the amount of time allowed to reclaim a concession for which payment is overdue; and the disposition of the remains exhumed from abandoned concessions differ from one city or village to another. In Paris, these decisions are made by the Service des Cimetières, which is part of the Department of Parks, Gardens, and Green Spaces.
For American painter Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), the possibility that his remains will be exhumed under the laws of the city of Paris is very real. Buried in the Cimetière Parisien de Thiais, a municipal cemetery that is located just south of the city, Delaney was laid to rest in what Americans might consider a pauper’s grave. His tomb lies in Division 86, a section designated for “temporary” concessions (those for which the term is ten years). This division is unkempt, and numerous graves are unmarked. The fees for Delaney’s concession have not been paid since 1985.
The grave is recognizable only by a small, ceramic flower arrangement placed there around 2001 by Sue Canterbury, a “paintings curator” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Careful counting of the grave spaces was necessary to determine the exact location to place the arrangement because a large number of the graves on Delaney’s row, including his own, are unmarked. Ms. Canterbury organized a retrospective exhibit of Delaney’s works that was held at the Institute from November 2004 to February 2005. Entitled Delaney: From New York to Paris, it subsequently traveled to the Knoxville Museum of Art (the artist’s hometown in Tennessee), the Greenville County Museum of Art (South Carolina), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Pennsylvania), where it closed in early 2006.
Delaney was one of many painters who came to Paris during the post-WWII years, taking up residency in the Hôtel des Ecoles on rue Delambre in the 14th arrondissement (district) in the autumn of 1953. It is likely that his decision to move to Paris was influenced by his friends Palmer Hayden, a fellow painter who lived in Paris from 1927 to 1932, and James Baldwin, who moved to Paris in 1948. Though he lived in poverty, Delaney spent many productive years in the Montparnasse district and the nearby suburban town of Clamart. His paintings were displayed in numerous group and solo expositions during this time, including a retrospective that featured the works created during his Paris years at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978.
Delaney suffered from hearing “inner voices” for much of his life, and his last years were marred by increasingly worsening symptoms of paranoia. After a severe mental breakdown during a voyage to Greece in 1961, he was institutionalized for the first time. Upon his return to Paris, he was diagnosed with liver and kidney problems as well. Both his physical and psychological ailments were aggravated by the slightest consumption of alcohol. Friends and family debated whether or not Delaney would be better off returning to the U.S. for treatment, but in the end, he stayed in Paris.
While he remained a psychiatric outpatient, Delaney produced, exhibited, and sold numerous paintings over a number of years. Yet he would not give up alcohol and would sometimes ignore his doctor’s orders and fail to take his medication. He was hospitalized for mental or physical illnesses several more times before finally being committed to the psychiatric facility at Saint Anne’s Hospital in Paris’ 14th arrondissement in 1975. There, he eventually lost all memory, sank into a state of semi-consciousness, and died on March 26, 1979.
Delaney was survived by brothers Emery and Joseph Delaney, niece Ogust Delaney-Stewart, and their descendents. According to biographer David Leeming, James Baldwin, who was one of Delaney’s closest friends at the time, wanted to bury him in Montparnasse cemetery. But neither Delaney’s family nor Baldwin had the funds to accomplish this.
Delaney died intestate. Burt Reinfrank, a friend of Delaney who was a member of a trusteeship (Tutelle des Incapables Majeurs) created by the French Government to handle Delaney’s affairs while he was at Saint Anne’s, indicated that Delaney’s good friend Charlie Boggs had been given a “will” by Delaney in 1961 or 1962, written on a small piece of paper, in which Delaney said (more or less):
Bury me in potter’s field. I leave my things and my things to you.
Delaney’s funeral was held at the American Church in Paris on April 6th. It closed with the preacher and the attendees singing Delaney’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.” A few of his closest friends, including Boggs, then proceeded to Thiais cemetery to witness his burial.
I recently received news of the impending exhumation of Delaney’s grave from Richard Gibson, a friend of Delaney. I went to Thiais cemetery to see the gravesite and to inquire about what might be done to save the concession. The adjunct director of the cemetery informed me that the sum of 273.95 euros was required to cover the fees owed on the concession to date and to preserve it through 2011.
Friends of Delaney and admirers of his work are contributing monies to a fund to pay these fees. Once the gravesite has been secured, they plan to petition the Service des Cimetières to allow them to place a tombstone, slab, or other commemorative marker at the site. Under normal circumstances, only the family of the deceased is allowed to place a monument at a grave. But because of the circumstances (no direct descendents, no relatives in France, abandonment of the concession), Delaney’s friends hope to obtain a special dispensation to do so.