Traditionally, Easter Sunday is when everyone goes to the cemeteries to visit the graves of their deceased relatives and friends. It is a time to tidy up the tombs and graves, lay new fresh flowers, and replace plastic ones. Often, because now families are distributed all over the country rather than staying in the same village generation after generation, it is also an opportunity to catch up with old friends and neighbours. And, being France, a day of very large family meals which last all day and evening.
Graves and cemeteries are still very important, particularly to the older generation – and not just because they might soon be there themselves. Keeping graves tidy, visiting for may years, is part of the way of life. In most rural cemeteries, at any time of day or season of the year, there will almost always be people tidying up, walking around looking at tombstones, and often with cars registered in other departments.
This can sometimes become a bit of a fetish. One little old lady, a frail birdlike creature reaching her eighties - Tante Denise, the aunt of a neighbour – visited the grave of her husband, often for hours at a time, every day since he died over 50 years ago. There are many others who spend more time than most of us would regard as entirely healthy at the grave sides of spouses, parents and sometimes children.
The need for a grave, with a headstone, is imperative for most French people. Being British, this seems to me faintly odd, as does the American way of death, with burials in expensive coffins. Every small French town has its memorial mason business, with exemplars of all sorts of headstones displayed. As with everything else, there seem to be fashions. 30 years ago, headstones started to become more curvy at the top, with swirls, cut outs, and many varying details. They also became more ornate, with carved illustrations of not just religious themes, but aspects of the life of the deceased; not as special as those seen in the non royal tombs of Egypt, but sometimes quite fancy. The last few years have seen the introduction of colour to the carvings, letterings and other details.
Our neighbour and very good friend Robert died a couple of years ago. His was the first funeral I had experienced in France. Unlike in England, most people turned up in ordinary clothes, rather than dark suits and ties. Because Robert had served in Algeria, he had a guard of honour from the veterans' associations – les Anciens Combattants. Around the department, there are still many local associations, who have enough active members to be able to produce a reasonable showing at funerals. The secretary of the local society organised it, discussed all the details with the widow, including how to display Robert's medals (he wanted a closed coffin, and the nature of the anciens combattants' participation.
At the funeral, there were two rows of anciens – and sadly increasingly ancient – combattants in military uniform, with regimental flags which they lowered in unison as the coffin passed between them. Quite touching, and unexpected. Like all Algerian war veterans, Robert never discussed or even mentioned that time. Both sides did some terrible things, and it is probably right that there is now not much to be gained by revisiting the details on an individual basis.
The other aspect of strangeness was that there was no equivalent of the British hearse, which is normally a black stately limousine (ordinary not elongated absurdly), or horse drawn carriage favoured by East End gangsters, followed by close family in other black limousines. Instead, the coffin turned up in a standard Renault Espace people carrier – pale grey, with the funeral company's name in discreet print at the bottom of the door.
Robert did not want his wife and other family members to mourn and mope over his grave for years to come. He therefore requested that he be cremated. This is very, very unusual. In the event, it turns out that there is no crematorium in the whole of the Manche Department. The nearest is in Caen, which is in Calvados. Toe enable a manchois to be cremated in Calvados required permissions from the prefects of both departments, and as always, revealed the thoroughness and implacability of French bureaucracy. The funeral took place in the local church, after which close family went with the coffin to the private ceremony at the crematorium.
I have been to number of funerals in the UK, all of which involved cremations, including one jolly humanist ceremony, and one for an uncle who would have enjoyed it if it had been someone else's. He had been a lifelong active socialist, but had a church funeral, but with a wicker and cardboard coffin.. He had become quite large in his last, very ill, years, and it was very difficult for the four pall bearers to lift his coffin, especially as they were not that young themselves. As they carried the coffin, its flimsiness became almost too obvious, as the whole thing began to buckle in the middle, and then sag at one end. The quick intervention of a couple of other – younger - mourners avoided the complete disintegration of the coffin, and the dropping of Ray on to the church aisle. He would have loved that.