Voltaire was a controversial man who possessed immense talent and whose versatile and prolific writings criticized religious dogma and intolerance. In fact, it was many of his ideas that lit the way for the Age of Enlightenment. However, Voltaire’s light that had shone so bright for so many years began to dim soon after he returned to Paris in February 1778, having been absent from Paris for 25 years.
It began around the end of April when Voltaire complained he was suffering from severe pain in his lower abdomen. To gain relief, he took wine and quinine. A few weeks later, Voltaire was tired and knew he would not be able to attend a meeting he had scheduled for Monday. However, to make sure his voice was heard, he stayed up and worked most the night on Saturday, 9 May, aided by excessive amounts of coffee to prevent himself from falling asleep.
The next day Voltaire was exhausted and developed a fever. His doctor prescribed small amounts of opium for his pain, but instead of taking a small dose, Voltaire took a large dose and fell into an extended period of delirium. One historian wrote:
“After this the pain was even more excruciating and it was impossible for Voltaire to urinate. He was not a model patient. He shouted and screamed, writhed and groaned, blamed everyone for murdering him.”
Voltaire’s decline continued and his bowels refused to move. On Saturday, 23 May, it was clear the end was coming quickly. By now he was no longer eating and he had stopped talking. Earlier, when he had been well, Voltaire had taken up the cause of a wrongful death for the son of a man whom he knew personally but did not like. The man’s name was the Count of Lally and his son was Gérard de Lally-Tollendal.
The Count of Lally was a French general who had been defeated by the British in three separate battles during the Seven Years’ War. Because of these defeats, Frenchmen charged him with treason and executed him. While Voltaire was on his death-bed, he learned that Lally’s sentence had been repealed. This victory caused Voltaire to rally long enough to dictate a letter to Madame Tollendal stating, “I see that the King is just; I die content.”
It was around this same time, the Abbé Gaultier visited and brought with him Jean-François Faydit de Terssac, the curate of Saint Sulpice. Terssac approached the dying man and asked whether he had faith in Jesus Christ. Voltaire was silent and gave no answer, which caused someone who believed Voltaire did believe in Jesus Christ to think that perhaps Voltaire had not heard and cried in his ear, “Here is the Abbé Gaultier, your confessor.”
To everyone’s astonishment the delirious Voltaire revived and replied, “The Abbé Gaultier, my confessor; pray make my compliments to him.” Then Terssac was announced and Voltaire raised himself and extended his hand. Terssac asked, “Sir, do you acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ?” “For the love of God, do not mention that man’s name,” was Voltaire’s response. At that the two clerics departed, and shortly thereafter on 30 May 1778, at 11pm Voltaire died peacefully in what his niece described as “going out like a candle.”
Voltaire’s deist beliefs and his constant criticism of the Church meant there was to be no Christian burial. Instead, it was planned that his body would be interred in Ferney, the spot that was Voltaire’s home from 1759 to 1778 and located in the Ain department in eastern France. He was to be entombed next to his library in the bathhouse.
The day after his death, on Sunday, 31 May, a post-mortem was conducted. Voltaire’s corpse was embalmed, his brain retained by the local apothecary, and his heart given to the marquis de Villette, a French writer who was Voltaire’s protégé. After dark, Voltaire’s corpse was dressed, and to make the journey to Ferney, his brainless and heartless body was tied in an upright position to the carriage. Of course, once the carriage got underway, it quickly became obvious the brainless, heartless corpse was not up to the journey.
A stop at the monastery at Scellières resulted in Voltaire being buried there. This displeased many Christians, and it did not take long for many false rumors to circulate about Voltaire’s death. Included among these claims was that he suffered “great agonies” and was terrified of his approaching end, screaming and writhing for Jesus Christ to save him. In fact, that could not have been further from the truth as his niece reported that he died “in great pain, except for the last four days, when he went out like candle.”
For Voltaire, the monastery was not to be his final resting place. About thirteen years later, on 9 May 1791 his body was exhumed, and two months later on 11 July, he was enshrined in the Panthéon, after the National Assembly decreed that his body be brought back to Paris. The night before the procession to the Panthéon, his coffin was placed in the ruins of Bastille and the following day, the procession to the Panthéon was a major celebration.
It is estimated that the procession stretched from one side of Paris to another and that a million people attended it. Some people thought the procession was pompous and maintained that such a lavish funeral should not have been given to “a man who had spent his life in ridiculing religion, and corrupting morals.” Yet, the ceremony lasted nearly twelve hours.
“The car which conveyed the body was drawn by twelve horses, of a light grey colour, harnessed four abreast, and led by men in antient dresses. Numerous detachments from all the battalions of the Parisian National Guard opened and closed the procession of the funeral, which set out at two o’clock in the afternoon, from the spot where the Bastille stood … In the train were men in antique dresses, carrying the statue of Voltaire on a frame. It was surrounded by pyramids, crowded with medallions, on which the titles of his principal works appeared. Upon another frame was a gilt box, containing a copy of the last edition of his works published by Beaumarchais; round this box were the Literati. At certain distances were placed different Revolutionary trophies, such as the chains, balls, and cuirasses, found in the Bastille; the colours, and plan of that fort in relief, carried by the workmen who had been employed to demolish it, and by the inhabitants of the Fauxbourg St. Antoine. Several full bands of music, both vocal and instrumental, attended the funeral, and hymns were chanted in praise of the philosophic poet.”
In addition, Voltaire’s casket was decorated with theater masks and the following inscription:
“Poet, philosopher, historian, he made a great step forward in the human spirit. He prepared us to become free.”
Earlier, his niece had also erected a small monument to him at Ferney. It had the following inscription:
“His virtues are here, — his genius is every where.”
After the revolution of 1830, it was unclear if Voltaire’s remains were still at the Panthéon. This was because rumors circulated that they had been removed by royalist fanatics. Years later, in 1897, it was decided his tomb should be checked and on 18 December 1897, it was opened. Voltaire’s remains were there.
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- Lamartine, Alphonse de, History of the Girondists, Volume 1, 1848
- Moleville, Antoine-François marquis de Bertrand de, Annals of the French Revolution, Volume 4, 1800
- Pearson, Roger, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, 2005
- Standish, Frank Hall, The Life of Voltaire, 1821
- The Quartier Latin, Volume 4, 1898