How a Failed Dam Legalized Marrying The Dead

Mar 12, 2021 1 comments

Sitting low among the hills, just north of the city of Frejus, in southern France, not far from the French Riviera coast, are the broken remains of the Malpasset Dam. This river barrier, completed in 1954, was built to regulate the flow of the Reyran River, and store water for agriculture and domestic use. The Reyran River is very irregular. It remains completely dry for most of the year including the hot summer months, but in winter and spring, this 27-km-long river becomes a raging torrent. A dam would help tame the river and provide water all round the year.

Malpasset Dam

The ruins of the Malpasset Dam near Frejus, in southern France. Photo: Chromoprisme (null) /

André Coyne was selected to build an arched dam across the valley. Coyne had been building dams throughout his career. He was the chief engineer of dams in the Upper Dordogne River, and while in that position, he designed the Marèges Dam which incorporated several innovative advancements in dam design. In 1935 he became the head of France's Large Dam Engineering Department and between 1945 and 1953 he served as President of the International Commission on Large Dams. Coyne built dams in fourteen countries, including Portugal, India, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Canada.

Construction of the Malpasset Dam began in 1952 and completed in 1954. Shortly after, the first filling of the reservoir began. The filling of a reservoir is a gradual process that can take many years, especially when its fed by a river that flows for only three months a year. Five years later, in 1959, the water in the reservoir was still 7 meters below the top, when small leaks began to develop along the right bank of the dam—an ominous sign of things to come.

Malpasset Dam

The Malpasset Dam before it failed. Photo:

That year, the region experienced more than the average rains causing the water level to surge up by nearly 5 meters. Instead of opening the spillway to relieve pressure upon the dam, it was decided to allow the dam fill up because opening the drain valves would have hampered the construction of the Marseille-Nice motorway about a kilometer downstream. On the evening of 2 December 1959, the water level in the dam reached the top of the concrete barrier for the very first time. The four last meters had filled up in less than 24 hours.

Later that night, the thin walls of the dam collapsed under the massive weight of the water and a huge wave swept through the valley, destroying all structures including houses, roads, railway lines, telephone and electricity network all the way to Fréjus. Large chunks of concrete, from the breached dam, some weighing up to 600 tons, were found more than a mile away. Over 400 people perished and 7,000 were left homeless. André Coyne, the dam’s chief engineer, was deeply affected by the tragedy. He died less than a year later.

The major takeaway from the disaster was that it was important to adequately understand the geology of the rocks over which a dam was to be constructed. But the most immediate consequence of the dam failure was the laying down of a law that legalized marriage with a dead partner.

Malpasset Dam

The ruins of the Malpasset Dam near Frejus, in southern France. Photo: Chromoprisme (null) /

Among the dead was a young man named André Capra, who was engaged to his then-pregnant girlfriend Irène Jodart. Despite the death of her partner, Jodart was determined to marry him. When President de Gaulle visited the town a week later, Irène Jodart pleaded with him to let her go along with her marriage plans even though her fiancé had drowned. de Gaulle agreed to look into the matter. Within a month, the National Assembly had passed a unique law allowing the President of the Republic to “authorize the celebration of the marriage if one of the future spouses is dead providing a sufficient gathering of facts establishes unequivocally his consent.”

Hundreds of widows and widowers have applied for post-mortem matrimony since then. Anyone wishing to marry a dead person must send a request to the president, who then forwards it to the justice minister, who sends it to the prosecutor in whose jurisdiction the surviving person lives. If the prosecutor determines that the couple planned to marry before the death and if the parents of the deceased approve, the prosecutor sends a recommendation back up the line. The president, if he wishes, eventually signs a decree allowing the marriage.

Every year, French authorities receive around fifty requests for posthumous marriage. About 20 get approval.

Malpasset Dam

The ruins of the Malpasset Dam near Frejus, in southern France. Photo: Greger Ravik/Flickr

While many get married for purely sentimental value, posthumous matrimony also play a practical role if the woman left behind is pregnant, as was the case with Irène Jodart. Legitimizing a marriage ensures that the children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of their dead father and the legal heir. Indeed, the practice of marrying the dead actually dates back to the First World War, when grieving girlfriends wanted to assure the legitimacy of their children whose fathers had died on the front before being able to tie the knot.

Most posthumous weddings are organized quietly. Usually, the woman will stand next to a picture of her deceased fiancé. Instead of a priest, the mayor will conduct the ceremony reading aloud the Presidential decree instead of the deceased man's marriage vows. But some marriages have drawn media attention. In 2004, Christelle Demichel married her dead fiancé who was hit by a drunken driver and killed while he was riding his motorcycle home from work. In 2009, Magali Jaskiewicz married her fiancé—another victim of a road accident. Magali Jaskiewicz’s boyfriend who had asked her to marry him two days before he was killed. Again in 2017, when a police officer Xavier Jugelé died in a terrorist attack, his longtime partner Etienne Cardiles received the President’s approval to marry him.

Outside of France, there have only been a handful of cases where the law have upheld posthumous marriages.

# Burst of a dam, French Ministry for Sustainable Development
# Malpasset Dam,
# Did you know: Why marrying dead people is possible in France, The Local
# Craig S. Smith, Paris Journal; A Love That Transcends Death Is Blessed by the State, The New York Times


  1. Amusing indeed! But based on such archaic law! That ´illegitimate ´ children don’t inherit, that a child can even be considered illegitimate,that a spouse ´de facto’ has no rights....

    BTW, in France everyone is married by the mayor, religious authorities have no power to marry people legally. Separation of church and state is stronger there than in most countries.


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