Au cimetière

It’s November, so naturally thoughts turn to death here in France.

It is a time of endings. All around us, nature is shrivelling up and battening down the hatches. The lake is a cold, grey sheet with rippling ridges whipped by the wind. Like the elderly themselves, the mountains have donned their winter caps.

Each French village has its cimetière and right now they feature colourful displays of chrysanthemums. November is their time of year. At La Toussaint on the first of the month everybody visits their dearly departed and sets a pot of mums on the grave.

I love visiting cemeteries. I discovered this unusual form of tourism when I was first in Paris many years ago. Père Lachaise is so beautiful and peaceful and it is amazing the famous names whose graves you stumble upon.

Our little village has no famous people buried here and the cemetery is small. Still, I stopped by the graveyard this week and was pleasantly surprised. First of all, by the gorgeous sunset view enjoyed by  those sleeping their eternal sleep. And by the fresh flowers that decorated just about every grave.

It was November 11, Remembrance Day. The town war memorial is just outside the cemetery and it had been decorated for a small ceremony held that morning. It is fitting to see the memories of the dead who fought for our freedom kept alive, even while the world goes a little mad all over again.

But what shocked me at the cemetery was this sign:

It seems that whoever bought this grave concession, their time is up. Basically, there is no eternity in a cemetery unless you pay for it. I googled it: ‘perpetuité’ costs extra, when it is available. Certain graveyards don’t even offer it. Those that do charge a premium. In Paris, the most expensive, it’ll run you 11,500 euros.

I can’t help but wonder: what do they do with the remains when the concession ends? Dig them up and put them in a public burial area? It is ghoulish to think of.

Cremation offers no respite. As it illegal to spread or even keep ashes privately, you are obliged to pay a fee to keep them in a columbarium.

Death is a scam that I hope to avoid for as long as I possibly can. But when it becomes inevitable, I intend to go up in a cloud of smoke. Have my ashes illegally scattered somewhere, maybe in the middle of a lake.

My last act will be law-breaking. I kind of like that idea.

Do you visit any cemeteries or places of remembrance?


  1. francetaste · November 14, 2019

    I didn’t know that about ashes.
    I also like to look at cemeteries, to see the names and dates and wonder about the people’s lives. I had wondered about the paucity of extremely old graves here in such an old place and learned that eventually they get reused.
    My mother, who died a few years ago in November, was into genealogy and would make my dad take her to cemeteries to verify birthdates and deaths of various ancestors. My dad referred to it as her “digging up the dead.”

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Genealogy is real passion for some people, one that I admire and enjoy knowing about but don’t have the patience for personally. Going out to actually check dates on headstones takes real detective work — great memory of your mother!

  2. margaret21 · November 14, 2019

    I wasn’t very taken by French cemeteries when we lived there. I think it must be the English Puritan in me that found them excessive. What surprised me too, was that (then at least) green burials were illegal. And even our greener-than-the-greens friend found the idea distasteful: a harbinger of disease as our noxious substances leach out. Even I, however, have to admit that French cemeteries look very cheerful celebratory places during November.

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Interesting about the green burials. I guess if the French have to dig up the remains when the lease expires, the ‘green’ part might be problematic? As for the colourful part of French cemeteries, it is tame compared to the Greek, Portuguese and Italians! 😀

  3. Al in France · November 14, 2019

    I find the French cemeteries somewhat cold and although it sounds odd, without ‘heart’. English churchyards on the whole, have a certain charm about them and make for rather beautiful places of repose and reflection. I’m with you in wanting to throw my ashes in the face of the law!

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Good to know I’m not alone in wanting to flaunt authority to the bitter end. I have never compared graveyards in France vs. England but I must say that ours here in the country is somewhat ‘soulless’ as there is no architecture around it and the plots are spaced fairly far apart. The really old cemeteries in the cities with historic headstones and vaults are much more welcoming.

      • Al in France · November 15, 2019

        I agree with you re: Père Lachaise Cemetery…I wandered around there for ages.

  4. 355101pkl · November 14, 2019

    I have lived in London for most of my life and seen many cemeteries, not intentionally but just in the daily course of things. I worked in Hampstead where many famous people lived and are buried. Perhaps the personally saddest I can recall on my daily journeys to and from work was the grave of the actress Kay Kendall in a small parish churchyard that I would pass regularly. It was clearly visible from the pavement as you walked by. The simple tribute from her husband Rex Harrison, she died aged 33 in 1959, was very touching. I can still picture the grave although I haven’t seen it for years.
    I also was near the grave of Karl Marx located in, Highgate cemetery and went by there a few times. It had a constant stream of visitors from all over the world taking photos.
    I also will never forget the cemeteries that I saw in France of the young soldiers that died in the Normandy battles in 1944. My father took part in the D day landings and took part in the battle of Caen, where the fiercest battle took place but survived to go right through into Germany and meet up with Russian soldiers coming from the other direction.

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Knowing the stories behind the names of people interred there makes all the difference. There are some very famous literary, music and art-world names in the Montmartre and Père Lachaise cemeteries. Jim Morrison’s draws a lot of pilgrims but there’s also Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Michel Berger…. I’ve seen the cemeteries and been to the war memorial in Caen, where I was embarrassed to be so warmly greeted as a Canadian — it felt so undeserved.

  5. Garfield Hug · November 14, 2019

    I know in HK, burial plots have a span of 10 years. Over in lil red dot, graves are also exhumed for development as we are land scarce and there is no peace after death as the body is dug up then cremated. Ashes interred in niches. Unclaimed bodies will have government cremating it and interring ashes of all into one urn. There are plans here for scattering ashes onto a garden of sorts. To scatter ashes into seas, need permit and only at certain spots. I would think in France, land is more available.

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      There is more land available in France but unfortunately it is a matter of money. The towns cash in on storing the bodies whether six feet under or the ashes, which are considered human remains. The whole thing absolutely appalls me. But I totally understand that in Singapore you would need to make land available for the living!

  6. Ally Bean · November 14, 2019

    Your photo of sunset in the graveyard is stunningly beautiful. I’m pleased to see a cemetery with real flowers on the graves. Around here some people put artificial flowers on the graves and I find that weird and tacky. Maybe it’s just me. As for your wishes upon your death, I like your rebellious nature and think it’s an inspired plan.

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Thank you! I agree fresh flowers are best but the thing is that unless they are cared for they die and then it looks very sad. If I were to take another picture in the spring, it would be a different story. I suppose cemeteries are natural places for the dead and dying and it is human nature to want to fight that with fresh signs of life.

  7. Suzanne et Pierre · November 14, 2019

    I have always like cemeteries. I like walking among the graves and read the tombstones as they often tells great stories. We have a big cemetery near by (actually there are 3 cemeteries side-by-side: a catholic, a protestant and a jewish) and we often walk through them as they are filled with trees and they are very pleasant. I also don’t want to be buried in a cemetery and wish to have my ashes dispersed (I think it is legal in Canada!). (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      That’s interesting, Suzanne, as I hadn’t thought of the fact that there were different graveyards according to religion. Here in France of course, most of them are by default Catholic. (But now it occurs to me: where do Muslims bury the dead?) Cemeteries are all the same to me, peaceful places regardless of denomination. Only the cultural traditions change in terms of how emotional the displays of grief. P.S. I just googled it and it seems that France doesn’t allow specific cemeteries according to religion — an interesting article here (although I find the tone maybe a bit xenophobic):

      • Suzanne et Pierre · November 15, 2019

        Interesting article. Our cemeteries haven’t been part of the securalisation process of the country. There has been huge debates in Quebec recently about the creation of Muslin cemeteries (especially after the shooting at the Quebec Mosque) . For some reasons, some citizens seem to be afraid of having a Muslin cemeteries close by their habitation. As if , buried Muslims could radicalize and come to haunt them. I truly don’t understand why we can have Jewish cemeteries but not Muslim ones…

  8. Katherine Wikoff · November 14, 2019

    “My last act will be lawbreaking”—I love that! Be a rebel to the end . . . and beyond 😂

    • MELewis · November 15, 2019

      Glad my rebel spirit inspired you, Katherine! 💪

  9. Dale · November 16, 2019

    You are not alone in wanting to break the law 😉 Half of my husband’s ashes are in a lake, the other half is waiting for me to decide when to go to another place he used to love to fish. We’re not allowed to spread the ashes either, which is total nonsense. Why take up space in a plot when we can just be returned to the earth?
    And that is crazy that your resting place has a lease!

    • MELewis · November 17, 2019

      Yeah, makes no sense at all. Personally I’m convinced it’s all a pretext to make money off our dearly departed. How sad that you too have to furtively spread your husband’s ashes. Not sure if it’s the case elsewhere in Canada or if its a French thing? But I suppose that finding a place he used to love to fish is a way of honouring his memory. ❤️

      • Dale · November 17, 2019

        I don’t understand it at all.
        I think so and it is what he wanted.
        My fathers ashes were supposed to be spread on the mountain where his brother-in-law (who, himself, just passed) lived and they spent (my father and his girlfriend) a lot of happy times. Susan just couldn’t bring herself to spread them so we buried them near a tree – also illegal, believe it or not.

      • MELewis · November 17, 2019

        As if at a time of such painful loss you need to worry about breaking the law as well…😢

      • Dale · November 17, 2019

        I know… but we do and we basically give a finger to those in power 😉

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