10 November 2015
20 degrees - mist netting the tree tops
Armistice Day tomorrow and my thoughts lingering on death and passing. This is something written back in 2008
As funerals go, Sarah's was wonderful. It was a very un-French sort of affair, with a lovely cold buffet lunch and drinks put on for the mourners after the church service, in the dining room of one of our small local hotels. The room had been decorated, if that's the word for when there's a funeral, with pictures and mementos of Sarah, when she was still full of health and before the brain cancer that had been discovered a year and a half earlier finally ended her French adventure.
Sarah's close family, her lovely, kind, and devoted husband, along with her grown children and their families and friends who had come from England, who had come to France from Britain for the end and the funeral, were still a bit red-eyed from the service at the church, but the overall feeling was that the sad part of the day was finished with, and we could all be relieved that Sarah was no longer suffering, but finally gone in peace to be with her maker. After the somber church service, luncheon was more a celebration of her life.
Most of the guests were English ex-pats of a certain age and wealth, with a assorted other anglophones, and a handful of French guests as well. The conversation was mostly in English, with the French who knew the language joining in, and the ones that didn't trying their best or being translated to. The wine and spirits and the good conversation helped us to forget the bad and remember the good, about our own lives and fortunes, as well as Sarah's.
Patés, rillettes, saucisson, with tiny, whole, too-vinegary cornichons awaited us. Mounds of paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham, platters of cold roasted chicken, pork roasted with slivers of garlic poked into the meat, and the most rare and bloody of thinly sliced, very tender beef. The food was beautifully presented, and a giant river salmon, poached whole and served in aspic with a creamy dill sauce, was the star of the repas. A rainbow of salads; grated carrot with garlic, beetroot and chopped onion, potato, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with green onions and Basque peppers, shredded celery root and mayonnaise, eggs mimosa. Crispy baguettes with sweet butter, and a dozen assorted cheeses. Then there were small, individual French apple tarts, profiteroles, croissants, pains au raisins, chocolatines, and strawberry mousse cake, served with strong hot French coffee or English tea.
Cases of the best Bordeaux wines, as well as some of the best of local ones, were served along with a bubbly Champagne and hard, sweet cider. It was lunchtime, but there was also whiskey, Porto, and pastis, and sherry or fortified wine for the ladies. I recall a good afternoon spent in agreeable, polite and interesting conversation, the delicious food, and, much later, weaving my way home on foot in the sunshine of the afternoon, slightly tipsy and thinking 'Bonne Voyage, Sarah!', in my head.
French funerals, at least the ones that I've had the honour of attending, are not at all the same. Sarah's funeral was as different as night and day to the one I went to in an old farmhouse, where the open wooden casket was propped up on chairs in the one big room with the only fireplace, that served as both a dining room and a sitting room. The mourners standing, their backs against the walls, with their hard, sombre faces and their tired eyes trying not to watch as the widow of two days draped herself, crying, over the casket. The old granny, mother of the dead, close in her bedroom off the big room, under the goose feather blanket in her bed, not being able to face any of it.
Then the hearse came and the friends of the dead helped to carry the coffin out through the narrow door and down the garden path, past the mournful hounds and the milling chickens, over the iron fence and into the vehicle. The service in the church was a short one, then the friends again carried the coffin, to the cemetery, where there was a gaping, unevenly dug hole waiting, with the excavated earth piled by the side. Ropes were wrapped under and around the casket, with hands helping to lower the dead into the grave, the coffin tipping, slipping in tipped-up and sideways and the helpers losing their footing in the crumbling earth at the edge of the pit, while the barren, childless wife wailed and cried out the name of her husband over and over, until she finally fell into a faint and had to be taken into a car to recover, carried in much the same manner as the coffin had been, and by the same friends.
There was no buffet luncheon after that funeral, no conversation or fond remembering of the dead. Only getting into the car and driving back to the farmhouse to make sure the the granny was okay, and then going back home. Weeks later, while at the farmhouse to visit, it could be seen that, while the widow was managing, the old granny was not, and had almost overnight become elderly and frail and weak. She'd come out of the bed, where it seemed she'd been staying since the funeral, to join us at lunch, but all she could think to speak about and lament was that her son had been taken to an early grave by an accident with a truck so big that the driver hadn't even noticed or stopped after killing her son. She didn't last much longer, and died soon afterwards, leaving the widow with only one old spinster aunt for company in the house and help to milk the cows and force-feed the ducks.
By contrast, Sarah's end had been long and drawn out and painful, full of uncertainties at the prognosis and dashed hopes. The family, however, saw the brighter side of things, and were grateful to have just having had come over from Britain to France to live, and where the diagnosis of brain cancer was pronounced. The way they saw things, with the state of the British medical system as compared to the French one...Sarah had had eighteen months of excellent hospital and home care, and had been able to do many of the things that she had always wanted to do in France, whereas had she been diagnosed in Britain, she would've been lucky to last four months. A glass half full, rather than half empty.
The church service, too, was a study in contrasts, with the local French vicar sharing the altar with the family's English one, who had been flown in for the occasion. So it turned out to be a bilingual, bi cultural mass, with the best of both traditions and customs being practised in our lovely old church. There were eulogies spoken by friends and family members, mostly in English, and we were taken on a trip of Sarah's life, from the time she was conceived and born as an illegitimate baby, between wars, and left on a doorstep...through to her marriage and years of being a homemaker and then a student...all the way to her finally fulfilling her dream to live in France, where she'd been for only a month, before the cancer was diagnosed. Her husband told me that she had started to feel unwell on the plane, coming over to start their new life. And he had thought it was nerves and reassured her. I had known the couple as house hunters; Sarah a fine whisp of a woman, her husband tall, stooped and serious.
The congregation of mourners were mostly the same ones that went on to the luncheon, afterwards. However, there were three little old ladies, sitting together on the hard wooden pews and clutching bibles and hymnbooks, that were unknown to most of the people at the funeral. I knew who they were; one of them was a retired nun who lived at the retirement home, one was a lady that spent most of her time helping the vicar at the church, and one was a lady that sold vegetables at the local farmer's market on Thursdays, but I didn't know why they were there.
The three grey heads, dressed in the most severe of black, including thick black stockings and black lace shawls, the former nun wearing a thick silver cross on a chain around her neck, bobbed on a pew about halfway down from the altar, right at the end, by the aisle. They had been among one of the very first mourners to arrive, and many of the others in the church, including Sarah's family, looked at them with a puzzled glances as they walked past to take their seats. I was just on the other side, slightly behind them, in the perfect position to watch not only them, but the reaction to them being in the church for this particular funeral.
The ladies were enjoying themselves, watching everyone as they passed and seemingly (I couldn't hear them) making remarks amongst themselves on the clothes and colour choices of those attending, and they looked a bit confused at the order, and languages, that the mass was celebrated in. Their hymnbooks were in French, and ours were supplied in English, which caused a stir among the three of them, and a bobbing of heads all around, but soon all were getting the hang of singing, them in their native tongue, and we in ours...after all, the music hadn't changed, just the words.
After the service, as everyone was standing around outside the church, watching as the casket was being loaded into the hearse, one of them came up to me and worriedly asked why they were taking the body away and where was the burial going to be. When I explained that Sarah had wanted to be cremated, and was being taken to the crematorium, she looked so disappointed. She then went back to where the other two ladies were standing, a bit apart from the crowd, and explained, and then they all looked crestfallen.
I understood, then, that the old women came to any funeral, simply as a form of entertainment. It made me remember the stories of paid mourners in the old days, who were paid to come and cry, in order to buck up the attendance and make the dead person look more popular.
What happens in France, from what I can gather, is that funerals for people who wish to be cremated happen AFTER the cremation, when the mourners gather, together with the urn containing the remains, for a funeral mass, after which there is the actual funeral, or placing of the urn in the crypt, if that's what is to be done with it. Interestingly you are not allowed to keep the ashes yourself, or scatter them in a public place. Instead they must be in consecrated ground or kept in a state facility.
Meals such as the funeral luncheon that we had don't seem to be the done thing at French funerals, either. Although sometimes the immediate family will invite especially close friends of the deceased back to the house for a coffee. In a way, it's a shame that these old ladies didn't get to come to the lunch at the restaurant, it would've kept them talking about and entertaining themselves with the memories of it for years to come.