I have read that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were both buried in unmarked graves after their executions during the French Revolution. On January 18, 1815, during the Bourbon Restoration, their bodies were exhumed and moved to their current location in the necropolis of French kings at the Basilica of St. Denis.

My question is, if they were buried in unmarked graves, how could their bodies be positively identified (or were they even positively identified)?

4 Answers 4


It seems that a loyalist by the name of Pierre-Louis Olivier Desclozeaux, who lived next to the plot of land where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were buried, wrote down exactly where the two graves were and then bought the plot of land when it came up for sale years later. He then offered the land and his note of where the two were buried to King Louis XVIII and this allowed their bodies to be exhumed.

I was able to find this information in the historical notes section of the book Palace of Justice: An Aristide Ravel Mystery by Susanne Alleyn:

enter image description here p.300

The fact that Desclozeaux was able to confidently state where the bodies were buried suggests that the two were not actually buried in a "mass grave" but rather in unmarked graves in a plot of land that many others were buried in as well.

  • Considering that Marie Antoinette was executed almost 9 months after Louis XVI, it is a bit surprising that the organisers of her execution/burial actually knew where the unmarked grave of her husband was. Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 3:03

What terminex9 said. The king and queen were buried in unmarked, individual graves in the cemetery, not in the mass graves that were also present. Desclozeaux's notes were proved to be very accurate; when they excavated the spot where Louis was supposedly buried, they found the remains of a coffin buried ten feet deep--far deeper than the standard grave--and covered with an extra-thick layer of quicklime to be sure that the remains decomposed as quickly as possible: all indications that the body buried in that grave was one that they really, really didn't want anyone to find, ever. What the royalists found in 1815 was probably just a few of the larger bones.

  • 2
    Sources would improve this answer...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 7:53

Agree to all the aforementioned.

I’ve been to the small park on that spot & in the Chapelle Expiatoire. Climbing down from ground level, you are led to a small subterranean room that houses a stone sarcophagus, which it is said now contains earth that surrounded the remains of the king’s casket. There are also dried, long-dead floral arrangements placed in small wall niches flanking the sarcophagus. It indicates that the floral tributes were from the early 19th-century when the Chapelle was dedicated.

The Queen wasn’t provided a coffin, just thrown into the dirt. Not much physically could’ve remained of either of them, what with decomposition, the elements & the liberal use of quicklime. They said that a courtier recognized the Queen’s mouth when her head was exhumed, but that was probably wishful thinking. They said there was also a garter in the grave. Whatever-it was all scooped up & reburied at St. Denis.

They were never in mass graves, just unmarked.

  • 2
    Welcome on History.SE. You say several times "They said that..." or "They said there was...", can you please precise who are they ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 7:56

French Wikipedia article on Olivier Desclozeaux (not available in other languages) adds a few details to the answer given by @terminex9:

Pierre-Louis-Olivier Descloseaux est, avant la Révolution, avocat au Parlement de Paris. Il habite depuis 1789 au 48 rue d'Anjou à proximité du Cimetière de la Madeleine où sont inhumés les condamnés à mort exécutés de 1792 à l'été 17942.

Avec un petit groupe de fidèles royalistes il note jour par jour l'identité des 1343 défunts et en tient registre. Il s'efforce de mémoriser également l'endroit précis où sont enterrés les principaux d'entre eux, particulièrement Louis XVI et Marie Antoinette. Ce repérage est difficile car il y a des murs autour de la parcelle.

Il avait circonscrit approximativement l’endroit où reposaient les corps et fit plus tard entourer le carré d’une charmille avec deux saules pleureurs et des cyprès, dans le souci de sauvegarder les dépouilles du couple royal et des autres inhumés dans le cimetière.

En 1796 le terrain du cimetière fut vendu à un menuisier, Isaac Jacot. Celui-ci fit faillite et en 1802 le bien mis aux enchères par le tribunal. Desclozeaux s'en porta acquéreur et fit procéder à des travaux de consolidation des murs.

Ultérieurement il vendit le terrain à Louis XVIII qui y fit élever la Chapelle Louis XVI, située aujourd'hui près de l'actuel boulevard Haussmann à Paris. Il reçut une pension et l'Ordre de Saint-Michel.

Google translation:

Pierre-Louis-Olivier Descloseaux was, before the Revolution, a lawyer in the Parliament of Paris. He has lived since 1789 at 48 rue d'Anjou near the Madeleine Cemetery where those condemned to death executed from 1792 to the summer of 17942 are buried.

With a small group of faithful royalists, he noted the identity of the 1,343 deceased day by day and kept a register. He also tries to memorize the precise place where the main ones of them are buried, particularly Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This location is difficult because there are walls around the plot.

He had approximately circumscribed the place where the bodies rested and later had the square surrounded by a bower with two weeping willows and cypresses, in order to safeguard the remains of the royal couple and the others buried in the cemetery.

In 1796 the cemetery land was sold to a carpenter, Isaac Jacot. He went bankrupt and in 1802 the property was auctioned off by the court. Desclozeaux purchased it and carried out work to consolidate the walls.

Subsequently he sold the land to Louis XVIII who built the Louis XVI Chapel there, located today near what is now Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. He received a pension and the Order of Saint Michael.

As the source the article cites La captivité et la mort de Marie Antoinette by G. Lenotre (Captivity and death of Marie Antoinette.)

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