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.
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.