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The Scandal of the Cult of the Dead

The Cult of the Dead has existed for quite some time, and its origins can be traced back to the ancient Chaldeans of Babylon. Saint Augustine implies as much in his works, Consuetudines, and again in De Cura pro Mortuis Gerenda, written in 422, when he states that; “the fate of the deceased in the hereafter was tied, in pagan tradition, to funerary rites and the tomb.”


Saint Augustine’s definition relates to the Phoenician-Chaldean religions, and while the Cult of the Dead (as in the spirits of the dead) existed in Roman pagan religion, it was comparatively limited in scope, including elements such as prayers, the gathering of the bones of the deceased, the insertion of the “obole” in the mouth, and the obligatory burial. It was forbidden, however, to “awaken” the dead, to take and disperse their bones, to violate tombs, to have oneself tattooed for the dead - this was especially frowned upon - or to have one’s head shaved for the same reason.


Within Saint Augustine’s proclamation, there exists some ambiguity in his distinction between the “remembrance of the spirits of one’s ancestors”, which are typically Roman pagan, and the “Babylonian Cult of the Dead”, the latter implying “magical rituals over corpses”.  One observes in passing that the cult is based primarily upon the Babylonian Book of Tobit, which glorifies the burial of the deceased, and also upon the “funerary unction” of Mary the Magdalene at Bethany, who poured perfume upon the head of Christ, and finally, the cult is based on the adoration of shrouds.

Charon and Psyche
St Augustine
Purging the sins
Priest Berenger Saunière
Cemetery doors at Rennes le Chateau
Iron cross Rennes les Bains
Tour Magdale at sunset

In light of the various pieces of probative evidence already furnished, it is more than probable that Bérenger Saunière officially engaged in “mass trafficking”, but officiously in a Cult of the Dead. The source of his wealth was clearly the extortionate price he obtained for performing funerary rituals.  And this explains why he received sums far in excess of the price of a simple mass. According to Saint Augustine, for the lack of this ritual, the adepts of this practice (as with the ancient Egyptians and their feast of Wagy, celebrated on the 17th of January), believed the deceased is deemed to be damned and cannot obtain salvation. This amounts to nothing less than the abolition of free will, given that the lifetime conduct of the deceased matters not one whit.  Thus, the parents or friends of the deceased are forced to pay a heavy price to whomever shall perform the ritual, or risk their “dear departed” not obtaining salvation in the next world.  Superstition? Perhaps, but the important factor is that the believer remains persuaded of the necessity of the Cult of the Dead.


There is another element that must be added to this dossier, and that concerns Bérenger Saunière’s Bishop, Msgr. Billard, who was in office before the priest went on trial for Simony.  Of particular interest is a biographical note entitled; “feu Mgr. Billard, l’évêque du Rosaire”, or The Departed Msgr. Billard, Bishop of the Rosary, by Abbé Laborde. The document, which is contemporary with Sauniere, was discovered by the researcher Pierre Jarnac, who published excerpts from it in his books.  Despite its somewhat extraordinary content, the note garnered little attention and seems to have been largely forgotten. Laurent Buchholtzer, another researcher whom Mr. Ben Jacob admires for his objectivity, ensured that the document was made available and, at the time of this writing, is studying it for further insights. Buchholtzer’s conclusions notwithstanding, reading the note provides considerable insight into the practices followed by the Diocese of Carcassonne during the time of Bérenger Saunière / Msgr. Billard. Further, it would appear that its author, Abbé Laborde might have been one of the Vatican’s investigators, or one of the agents of the Ecclesiastic Tribunal, because the revelations contained in this document largely anticipate the argumentation presented by the Sacred College and Msgr. de Beauséjour, and also confirm the existence of a Cult of the Dead within the Roman Church.

Danse Macabre
Villa Bethania
Music room Villa Bethania

St Augustine

'Charon and Psyche' 1883

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

'Disputation with Simon Magus and Crucifixion of St Peter' 1471-1472 Filippino Lippi


Bérenger Saunière

Entrance to Rennes le Chateau cemetery

The Tour Magdala, Rennes le Chateau

Gravestone, Rennes les Bains

Danse Macabre...

The Villa Bethania,

Rennes le Chateau

Music room, Villa Bethania

Disputation with Simon Magus and Crucifixion of Peter

As Saint Augustine implied in his writings, the ritual was not at all Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it served as the central pillar of the ancient dualist religions, particularly the Chaldean and Egyptian belief systems.  In fact, it is the subject of a tenacious “tradition” that far pre-dates Christianity, and which has survived through the apocryphal Book of Tobit, a Chaldean work which Saint Jerome reluctantly introduced into the Vulgate, knowing full well, and disapproving of, it’s un-christian like content; an opinion he voiced openly in the preface of the book.  


As a necessity of its own survival, the ritual superimposed itself on certain Biblical passages in order to seamlessly mesh with Christianity.  “Superimposed” is the operative word, as Saint Augustine states, in The City of God; “from the point of view of salvation, these rituals offer no assistance…  Cadavers can be thrown out to feed the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, this has no effect: the devouring beasts can do nothing against bodies predestined to resurrection.”


Thus, Saint Augustine is quite firm on this point and deems the ritual incompatible with Christianity. Clearly, the ritual is designed to absolve the sins of the deceased’s soul, yet is only practiced when the promise of money has been established. This is a violation of the doctrine of free will and the pre-destination of the just, that salvation should be conditioned upon the price paid and prayers offered, independently of one’s conduct in life. Saint Augustine emphasizes this, saying that; “the offerings and price paid to the clergy by the family, parents or friends of the deceased would bring the salvation of the soul.”  This funerary ritual comes from the religion of the Magi, Chaldean or Egyptian, and contains elements very much akin to a “belief in magic”.  After all, isn’t “Magus” the same as “Magician”?  Not coincidentally, from the very beginning of Christianity, this practice appears amongst Magicians, and particularly a certain Simon; Simon the Magician (Simon Magus), one of the better known “heretics” of the first century after Jesus Christ, had encountered Saint John and Saint Peter at Samaria, in Judea.

In any case, as noted by Saint Augustine, prayers for the dead were only relevant for those who truly required them.  In other words, if the deceased had conducted a just life, he could receive prayers, but really had no need of them. Obviously, the Church wished to stifle the practice – or at the very least – disassociate it from its original purposes: the Cult of the Dead, an essential condition for salvation for the Babylonians, which – in the Church – became a simple memorial for the dead, routinely conducted by the living.  However, this did not in any way prevent a certain number of believers and clerics from preserving a stealthy survivance of the origins of the cult.


From the time of Saint Augustine, until the year 1000AD, the Cult of the Dead had more or less collapsed upon itself, and was only practiced in the Church in the form of a duty of remembrance by the living for their ancestors.  It is in the Middle Ages, with the advent of the doctrine of Purgatory and of tarified indulgences, that the Cult of the Dead finds its second wind.  The hunt for relics opens the door to the worship of cadavers and the violation of tombs for religious reasons. Circa the Xth century, “private mortuary masses” and exorbitantly-priced penitential practices begin to appear. Tariffs for penitence are established, as laid out in “libri paenitentiales”, with the object of trading hours of flagellation, during which it is not unusual to self-administer over 1,000 lashes, against money or goods.  The Doctrine of Purgatory, in and of itself, provided a real basis for the Cult of the Dead, because it purported that no one could directly access Paradise. Rather, it stipulated that all souls must first pass through Purgatory, an intermediary world between Hell and Paradise, in order to “purge” the sins committed during one’s lifetime.

In order to obtain salvation and exit Purgatory – which is reputed to be even worse than Hell - souls were in need of a formal mortuary mass that consisted of rituals preformed on the dead, conducted to absolve all indulgences of the deceased; a expensive exercise that family and friends entrusted to monks and various penitent orders so that the souls of their loved ones may be saved. Simony had returned, but under veil of legitimacy.  In fact, in order to justify the exorbitant price of the rituals, the Church had to revise the history and the writings of its elders. A good example of this is Saint Augustine, who was cleverly associated with this new ‘fashion’, even though he had previously insisted on the existence of only two states; Heaven and Hell. Ironically, Saint Augustine would henceforth be deemed “the discoverer of the doctrine of Purgatory”, a third state. Really, one can say that from the XIth to XVth centuries, the Cult of the Dead and tarified penitence – based upon the existence of Purgatory – would become the basis for modern Catholicism, in the manner of Thomas Aquinas, but that is subject for another time.


Obviously, certain voices were raised in opposition to what were believed by some to be “pagan superstitions”.  In the IXth century, Hincmar, Bishop of Reims forbade the Cult of the Dead, as did Yves of Chartres, circa the XIth century and Jacobus de Voragine in the XIIth century.  In reality, the practice of offsetting the condition for the salvation of souls upon the payment of a fee is still condemned, but only as a façade.  Indeed, it is permitted to honour the dead, and to pay the clergy for indulgences on behalf of the deceased, to traffic in relics, and to disinter the dead in order to submit them to a mortuary ritual, but it is quite forbidden to discuss such things or to be seen to be remunerated for them. This, of course, is nothing less than Simony, but the Church preferred to state, at the time, that these were just practices with regard to Purgatory.  This is what is called “faire la bouche fraiche”, or “a pious lie”. Today, while the sanctions against Simony are still in force, they are seldom or very lightly applied.


Thus, the Cult of the Dead spread throughout the Church and continues to be applied right through the XIXth century, and beyond. There are repertories of cases and archives confirming that the rituals and customs that accompany it have in fact survived. This is the case with the Rennes-le-Chateau affair, and its priest, Bérenger Sauniere, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Carcassonne, Msgr. Billard, which goes back to the 1890s.  The Da Vinci Code, a well-known novel by Dan Brown even makes use of it, borrowing the names of its characters in order to concoct a story of a treasure discovered by the priest, and a mysterious secret of the Roman Church, that if exposed, could overturn the very foundations of Christianity.  The whole affair is astonishing because, for lack of a treasure, the priest of Rennes-le-Chateau, Bérenger Sauniere, had actually discovered the means of practicing a Cult of the Dead, for which exorbitant payments could be demanded, and the traffic for which was conducted in collaboration with a large network, visibly led by the Bishop of his Diocese, Msgr. Billard. Rather amusing, isn’t it?

Bérenger Saunière, as is well documented, enjoyed an apparent wealth beyond all reasonable means of an ordinary priest. He appeared rich, and for example, ordered the construction of a large villa and tower with beautiful gardens on the grounds of his village. What with building these projects, and his excessive orders for crates of wine and purchases of luxury goods, the priest established a very high standard of living, even better than his Bishop. All of this required wealth far in excess of the salary of a poor rural priest. And, in fact, Bérenger Sauniere was indeed a very poor rural priest in the beginning, and no one understood the reason for this sudden wealth. Having been accused of violating tombs on several occasions, one would think that the priest should have at least piqued the curiosity of his Bishop, Msgr. Billard. But quite the opposite is true, as the latter never requested his accounts, nor did he ever officially inquire as to Bérenger’s situation.


Unfortunately for Bérenger, Msgr. Billard died and was replaced by Paul Félix Beuvin de Beauséjour, in 1902, who became Bérenger’s dedicated persecutor.  From 1908, Mgr. de Beauséjour took much pleasure in the rigorous examination of the Rennes-le-Chateau priest’s little traffic, and on the 15th of January 1909, attempted to transfer him to another posting.  Bérenger refused, and was summoned on several occasions to Carcassonne in order to explain himself. But the priest never appeared, and Msgr. de Beauséjour formally requested that he cease and desist from what he termed; “a traffic in masses”.


Nevertheless, Bérenger remained committed to his “traffic”, and continued to receive large donations and requests for masses, in return for quite generous remuneration.  On the 27th of May 1910, Beauséjour demanded that Bérenger be tried before the Church Tribunal.  Once more, the priest refused to appear. He did, however, obtain a review of the trial in which he is condemned in absentia and takes on a Mr Canon Huguet as his lawyer. Accused of “trafficking in masses”, “excessive expenditures” and “insubordination” to his new Bishop, Bérenger is soon condemned.


First and foremost, Bérenger is obligated to submit his account books to his Bishop.  These documents list all the monasteries and clerics that have provided him with money in exchange for masses, or mortuary rituals to be specific.  As usual, Bérenger did not provide the requested documentation, nor did he appear before the Diocesan Seat. The matter was then forwarded to the Sacred College, at the Vatican in Rome and on the 5th of December 1911, he was found guilty of “dilapidation” and “misappropriation of the funds deposited with him”. The trial continued, but the Vatican dared not pursue matters further, due to the fear that a scandal would ensue and invariably spread to the hundreds of monasteries that the priest had been doing business with.  In any case, he died a short time later, and this “affair” was conveniently stifled.

So what we have here is a rather strangely unstructured Church and Diocese, where obscure considerations motivate the postings of priests and trusted officials. “Spy priests” are strategically placed by the Bishop, and are tasked with fomenting cabals against other priests. Msgr. Billard maintains several Vicars and several priests in small unimportant communities, while larger parishes have no priests available to celebrate a mass. Highly placed personages obviously give orders to allocate postings to this priest or that, in order to “perpetuate” some sort of “feudal tradition”. And Msgr. does not deprive himself from disrespecting ecclesiastical discipline and law, in order to appoint priests of his liking. Cronyism, recommendations, diffamation, spying, the Diocese operates in accordance with precise norms, but they are more reminiscent of an occult society than a church.  It remains that it is the local nobility, or at least a very limited “elite”, that exerts influence on postings and which pays Msgr. Billard a lofty fee.


In brief, there is no doubt that the placement and displacement of priests and religious personnel in the region was “guided” and completely disconnected from any sort of merit. Without question, Vicars and priests shock the population, as was the case with archpriest Andrieu, who might well, according to the researcher Laurent Buchholzer (in his analysis of Sauniere’s accounts) be the priest who; “began to send mass intentions to Bérenger Saunière in 1898”.  So honest citizens accuse these priests, complain to the Prefect and to the Mayors, and demand that the Municipal Councils take action… but why?  Perhaps for the same reasons that the villagers of Rennes-le-Chateau complained about Bérenger Saunière?  In other words, because of the violation of tombs.

If this were the case, the retirement fund would actually have been a sort of ”death insurance fund”, established so that one could pay in throughout one’s life, in order to receive the funerary ritual.  Indeed, Saunière’s retirement home scheme was to ‘take in’ dying priests in order to perform the ritual on their behalf. He financed it in 1899, when he decided to expand his “mass trafficking” to over 250 monasteries in across France and greater Europe. This is further confirmed by an astonishing revelation in Abbé Laborde’s document:


   “Abbé Rauffet, upon becoming the parish priest of Devejean, told his Bishop (Msgr. Billard) that he was preparing to celebrate a mortuary mass for the rest of the soul of his predecessor, Abbe Olive. “No”, the Bishop answered peremptorily,”he is dead, and let him be dead.” … This answer is a monstruosity from the mouth of a Bishop: one only refuses prayers for the souls of the damned.  How was Msgr. so sure that Abbe Olive was damned?”


With this statement from Abbé Laborde, Msgr. Billard is caught in flagrante delicto as to the Cult of the Dead.  If the Bishop refuses that prayers be said for the salvation of Abbe Olive’s soul, it can only be for the reason put forth in the document: “Olive cannot receive masses, because they are only refused to the souls of the damned.” How can the soul of a believer, of a priest, be officiously considered to be damned, without an inquiry or proper evidence?  Voltaire gives us the answer in his Dictionary of Philosophy in the “affair of Cult of the Dead among the Pères Cordeliers of Orléans” (The lord of Saint-Mesmin vs. the Cordeliers Penitents of Orléans):


   “In 1534 there was a criminal trial (Library of the King of France, manuscript n° 1770) that generated a scandal.  The Saint-Mesmin family had shown much generosity to the monastery of the Cordeliers, and had its family tomb within its church.  His wife having died, a lord of Saint-Mesmin, provost of Orléans, believed his ancestors had sufficiently impoverished themselves for the benefit of the monks, and made a donation to the Brothers which, to them, appeared insufficient.’’ “These good Franciscans took it upon themselves to plan to exhume the deceased, in order to force the widower to pay them better, to have her re-buried in their consecrated ground.… The soul of the Saint-Mesmin lady appeared to only two Brothers, and told them “I am damned like Judas, because my husband did not give enough.”


To put it succinctly, within the framework of the Cult of the Dead, and in the work of Saint Augustine, the payment of a fee is unambiguously established  as the currency for the salvation of the deceased’s soul.  In the absence of this one time fee, or regular subscription, the ritual is refused and the deceased is deemed to be damned, without further consideration.  Thus, one cannot say masses for the deceased, not even prayers. No fee equates to no salvation, which is exactly what Abbé Laborde notes with regard to the actions of Msgr. Billard. After accusing him of Simony, and delivering his entire diocese into the practice – which he deems to be “monstrous” – he pins it upon the Cult of the Dead and states very clearly that there was absolutely no reason to consign Abbé Olive to damnation, other than – once again – a matter of money… and forbidden rituals.

Simon was very interested in their gifts and attempted to appropriate for himself their “powers”. Indeed, Simon imagined that miracles performed by Jesus’ disciples were the result of the practice of magic, and to know the “formulas” would enable him to do the same. So Simon offered to purchase the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” from the two saints.  Saint John and Saint Peter refused, and proceeded to roundly condemn his practices.  But Simon persisted, and having failed in his acquisition, turned to Magi who taught him how to levitate and how to awaken the dead, amongst other skills.  It is said that Simon Magus, having acquired the means of levitating towards the heavens, ultimately died by falling from a great height and crashing to earth, breaking his neck.


Since that time, the traffic in masses for the dead, or the act of paying a price for either the salvation of a soul, or any other thing pertaining to religion, has been known as “Simony”, after Simon Magus.  Under Canon Law, Simony is; “a crime, punished by Major Excommunication and the obligation of complete restitution to the Church of the unduly collected price.”


Failing that, the guilty cleric is determined to be a “heretic”, and his commerce deemed a “misappropriation of funds”.  But as Saint Augustine says in Consuetudines, this tradition was well implanted and believers had their superstitions.  So, denying the usefulness of the Cult of the Dead, and the payment of a price to redeem their souls, was not going to end the practice; at best, it would merely slow its resurgence.  And this is what occurred.


In as much as the Cult of the Dead is not dogma, and does not directly attack the faith, and even though it is deemed contrary to the doctrine pertaining to salvation, it was in fact tolerated under various pretenses, even by Saint Augustine, who was forced to bend under the weight of criticism and include it in what was otherwise an entirely Christian text.  And so it became accepted behaviour that; “the living have the right to occupy themselves with the dead, but that souls cannot return from whence they may be, and thus do not benefit from prayers.” And further, that; “it is permitted to pray for the dead, but not in an attempt to redeem them from their crimes, only to console oneself.”  And finally, the Church tolerates each communities practices with respect to the Cult of the Dead, so long as it is only a local custom and that; “it does not infringe upon the doctrine of the faith.”

Abbé Laborde opens his Notice with a statement that sounds suspiciously like an indictment:


    “On this 3rd of December 1901 … the diocese of Carcassonne has just lost … its bishop, Msgr. Billard, Félix Arsène… (as it happens) the diocese was administered haphazardly… One must allow a critic to judge (Msgr. Billard) on the basis of his own actions, in the name of truth and only truth, as is said in court.” This is the more or less explicit confirmation that Laborde was investigating in preparation for a trial. The text continues: “This is what we shall do, without passion and without exaggeration, but to set all matters aright.”


So Laborde seems to be putting his finger on a weighty matter, and is announcing from the very start that the entire diocese is concerned with the indictment.  But let us continue reading this extraordinary account:


    “Right after the Prefect and the entire administrative nomenclature, Msgr. has loved no one more than the entire hierarchy of nobles who, in order to perpetuate their feudal practices, have almost always maintained a relationship with the ecclesiastical authorities that was disadvantageous to the poor priests … Under the pretense of “good works”, the ladies come with a charming smile to open their purses so that his Eminence may dig in at his ease…  After such accommodations and sumptuous dinners, how could one expect Msgr. To ignore the noble lady asking for an important posting for a priest who meets her requirements? … Once the rich and the noble are satisfied, Msgr. also has a thought for his personal friends, the friends of the General Vicars, of the Canons, of the Priests of the City Parishes; and there still remains to place the informants, those who, taking the place of more deserving priests, bring Msgr. the most inconceivable gossip … against their colleagues ... Why would one leave 5 Vicars at Saint Vincent of Carcassonne or 3 priests at Pezens where there are only one thousand souls?  Why maintain Vicars in small parishes … where one priest could suffice?"


The  notice continues:


“Thus, Abbe Arrufat, parish priest of Pradelles-en-Val, who suffered a sick brain, behaved extraordinarily extravagantly in his parish; the Mayor and other persons alerted Msgr. to these facts, but Msgr. answered that he believed naught of it because, he said, Mr. Arrufat was a saint.  Well, as it happens, this saint was so extraordinary that one month after this response from Msgr., he was interned in an institution for the insane, in Toulouse.  And concerning Abbe Andrieu, parish priest of Escales, the Bishop never listened to anyone, not the Prefect, not the Municipal Council, nor the most righteous families of Escales:  Andrieu remained in his post until the day when the scandal was so complete that he was forced to leave under the derisive clamour of the population, lest they deal with him harshly.… and with regard to Monie, to Fresquet, and so many others, Msgr. has always turned a deaf ear to all complaints… In order to protect his underlings, Msgr. always provided answers that side-stepped the truth, and he never displaced them against their will.”

As of this writing, there is no information allowing one to confirm the above assertion, except perhaps the latter part of Laborde’s Notice, where one can read this:


   “(Msgr. Billard), in order to obtain money, conferred titles of Canon in place against the sum of thirty thousand Francs.…  Msgr. was guilty of Simony, it’s that simple.…  His Eminence was selling the title of Canon, because without the thirty thousand Francs, he would not confer it.  By engaging in such a traffic, Msgr. seems to have forgotten that Simony is - by its very nature – a mortal sin and a horrible sacrilege.  He should have read the article on Simony in Migne’s Dictionary of Canon Law.  In order to obtain money, he forced the priests of the grand seminary to participate in the retirement fund.  Here is the content of Article VI: ‘No seminarian will be promoted to the sub-deaconship, unless he gives a written undertaking to subscribe to the retirement fund immediately following his ordination.” …  In order to dispose of money, Msgr. never, over a period of 19 years, gave any accounting for the retirement fund.  According to the report of the priest of Saint-Marcel… the fund should have had in its possession 1,052, 121.00 Francs.  Msgr. without giving any reason whatsoever, during a meeting on October 27th 1896, would only admit to 568,000.00 Francs, and not only that, but without any probative documents.  The accountant frankly admitted that there were none, which astonished all the priests present at this meeting.”


With this document, one can readily assess the prevalent atmosphere in the Diocese of Carcassonne.  Mgr. Billard supervised a Simony network, the goal of which was to monetize – on a large scale – all the sacraments, including the posting of priests.  In fact, when Abbé Laborde declares that the Bishop was “guilty of Simony”, he cannot ignore the full scope of this accusation: massive trafficking in ecclesiastic titles, and also in funerary rituals, and thus, the Cult of the Dead”.  Further, by adding that the Bishop only nominated priests in whom he had full confidence, it is an admission that all of the priests in question participated in the trafficking.  But when Laborde speaks of the retirement fund and ties it to Simony, he must know more than he is revealing. What purpose could a retirement fund serve, when over half of its holdings disappear from its accounts?  Could it be some adjunct to the retirement home purportedly built by Bérenger Saunière to receive priests at the end of their lives?

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Isaac Ben Jacob

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