French Funeral

My neighbour has had a really bad year so far.

In January her husband went to Reims for a bypass operation but was in Intensive Care until he died on Monday. He was pretty fragile before  he went in but they felt they had to go ahead. He had a second operation to clear his lungs last week but he still couldn’t breathe without the ventilator.

So, it wasn’t surprising when Claudine’s sister came and told me he had pased away early on Monday morning.

“Is it OK to come and see her?” I asked.

“Yes, she’d like to see you.” was the response.

I went next door and gave Claudine a hug.

“Do you want to see him? He’s here.” She said.

Of course, it’s a French custom (though not so frequent nowadays) for the deceased to ‘lie in state’ at home so that family and friends can pay their respects.

Hervé was in the living room (furniture moved aside) looking very peaceful and surrounded by candles and flowers. I didn’t know what to say and just stood in silence with Claudine.

Finally I touched his hand and said “Now he is at peace.”

Funerals take place quickly in France and “les obseques” were arranged for 9 o’clock on Thursday.

Following British tradition Bear and I walked down to the church at ten to nine. One or two people were waiting outside but we went in and sat near the back, surprised that there were only four other mourners in place.

When the coffin came in, we realised that we should have waited outside and followed the long procession. The church was now fairly full.

The service was taken by a layman – at least he wasn’t wearing a dog collar – and, although I couldn’t understand all of it, consisted of a simple resumé of Hervé’s life, some readings, prayers and chants from the choir. He also said something about “four o’clock”  and “you are all invited”.

At the end we were  directed to line up for the ‘asperges’ – blessing the coffin with holy water.

This was a most harrowing time for Claudine as she had to stand there and watch everyone, sobbing her heart out.

Outside, little groups of people huddled together against the cold wind, talking quietly. Claudine’s sister appoached me.

“Did you understand about the cremation?” she said. “He’s going to the crematorium now and then they’ll bring back the ashes at about half past three and Claudine would like you to walk down to the cemetary with us and then come back for a coffee.”

Goodness – that was quick! They certainly don’t hang about do they?

So at three thirty we went out and walked behind the family following the hearse to the cemetary. Other neighbours joined the procession and we arrived at the Columbarium – a pyramid especially built to hold ashes. There was a hole near the top where one of the plaques had been removed.

The undertaker placed the urn on a table and we all gathered round.

He invited us to spend a minute in silence, thinking about Hervé then said a prayer and the family started another ‘asperges’ . Everyone took their turn and even waited for two latecomers to rush forward and do their bit.

Then came the worst part. They put the urn into the hole.

Claudine sobbed.

Then, rather cruelly, we thought, they sealed the (already engraved) plaque into place and the workman proudly polished his handiwork, took up his toolbox and departed.

We stood there in contemplation until Claudine felt able to move, and then walked back down the hill to her house.

She and the family had huge flasks of coffee  and sugar cake ready and waiting and she did seem more composed as she made sure everyone was served.

Bear didn’t want to come in for coffee but I was made to sit down at the table “because of your leg” and everyone chatted about this and that, carefully avoiding anything that might upset Claudine.

I don’t know what her plans are, or whether she has actually decided what she wants to do. Her elder son lives near Toulon and her daughter lives near Belgium. Her younger son is a boarder at a special school so she will be alone most of the time.

She doesn’t drive so, although we will willingly take her shopping and offer lifts as necessary, she may feel rather isolated.

Fortunately her son and sister-in-law are staying on for a week or so and then her sister is coming back to be with her again.

Our thoughts are with her at this sad time.

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9 Responses to “French Funeral”

  1. Keith Says:

    What can one say at a time like this? Life can be so cruel at times. We all know what it’s like to lose someone who has been close to you, and no words can really help, so I think it is best not say anything at the time. The fact that you were there speaks volumes.

    When people say “Time will heal the sorrow you feel”, I don’t agree. Time doesn’t heal, it just helps to make things a little more tolerable. I still suffer even now from losing my son 17 years ago.

    I am so sorry about your son and realise how much you must miss him. It’s true there are no words of consolation that can work in these circumstances. It’s just a case of ‘being there’ for someone.

  2. Pat Says:

    When I was a child in Lancashire even I was taken to see the dead lying in their front rooms with the curtains drawn and neighbours would draw theirs out of respect. But when My Uncle Jack died with cancer my dad said he wanted me to remember him as he was and I didn’t see him.
    I think all the little rituals can be helpful in the grieving process and I’m sure your friend woud have appreciated your presence.

    Yes, of course, I remember the curtains being drawn too – now that you mention it, Pat and I remember my grandmother’s brother died while he was staying with us (when I was very young) and I think his body was kept in the house but I don’t think I was allowed to see him.

  3. tillylil Says:

    There has been an average wait of 14-20 days for a cremation in Gorleston this winter.
    Must be a hard time waiting that long for a funeral – much more civilised to get it over with quickly and alow the grief process to begin.
    It is more of a Catholic tradition to have bodies at home laying in state in the front room, but one would assume that the funeral would take place within a week for obvious reasons.

  4. Little old me Says:

    I still close my curtains and I think it’s a shame that people don’t have the person they loved at home so that people can come and say good bye. I wanted to have my mom at home, (in my house as dad din’t want her at their home, and I can understand that). My hubby didn’t mind, but I was over ruled by both my younger sisters and dad. They didn’t want anyone back after either. I never felt mom had the send off she desvered

  5. bretonne Says:

    In Brittany, traditionally you turn any mirrors to the wall, empty all the water-jugs/cuves, and open a window so that the soul can find its way out. Religious practices here are such a mix of “old” (pagan) beliefs onto which Christian practices were grafted, it’s quite fascinating, and because everyone turns out for funerals in churches which are poorly attended on Sundays, death is very much a way of life, and the various rituals are a means of having something specific to do for those long and painful moments.
    I had the experience of having to deal with the whole process, from the last moments in hospital to the coffee-and-cakes in the restaurant, via having to translate English hymns and tributes for the ceremony, accompanying a friend whose mother died. I carefully jotted down notes then typed all the procedures out to leave with my Will – having to deal with all that in French is something I did not want to leave my children to cope with!

  6. Z Says:

    My father was brought back to our house when he died. I went in to see him with my mother and sister. He was the coldest thing I’ve ever touched, or so it seemed. In the following days, I’d have liked to go in again on my own, but the door creaked and I knew my mother would follow me and then want me to talk about why I’d been in without her, so I didn’t.

    When my mother died, I prepared food obsessively for people to stuff themselves. Very odd.

  7. Susie Vereker Says:

    A sad post but it interesting about the traditions too. The plaque business sounded hard to bear, but then if you hang on to the ashes you have to find the right time to scatter them, I guess.

  8. guyana gyal Says:

    I feel so really, truly sad for Claudine. She will need lots of hugs from anyone who cares to give her any. It’s sad that she will be alone.

  9. mary Says:

    Thank you for your story. It has helped me understand what is happening here. My father-in-law passed away on Sunday evening here in Normandy, and they have kept him here at home. I live in America, and this all seemed unusual to me, but I understand that customs vary greatly. It seems to give some relatives great comfort to know that a part of him is still here for a few days. The funeral and crematorium will be tomorrow, and I thank you for helping me understand this as well. It is all so different from my previous experiences with the rituals surrounding a loved one passing.

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