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?

La Fête des Morts

IMG_2582‘La Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, often referred to in France as ‘La fête des morts’, is a public holiday held on November 1st in commemoration of the dead.

Strange, the cultural differences around this day. ‘Fêter’ means to celebrate but there’s not much festivity in the air. The month of November tends to be gloomy in France and chrysanthemums add about the only color at the cemetery. November really is about honoring, or at least remembering, the dead (followed by Remembrance Day on Nov. 11).

In English-speaking countries, Hallowe’en is the main event: an irreverent but fun-loving ghoul-fest. It is a death-defying, joke-ridden time for everyone from teens to tots to dress up, gorge on candy and shout “Trick or treat, smell my feet, I want something good to eat.”

I’m disappointed that Hallowe’en has never really taken off in France. I like the idea of a special day to honor our dearly departed, but I wish it could happen in a joyful way. To put, as one of my most beloved television comedy characters* once said, the ‘fun’ into funeral.

Remembering those we have lost should be a happy time of shared memories and jokes, of laughter with tears. It doesn’t mean we’re not sad that they’re gone. It means that life is for the living, and deserving of celebration. That those very people we are honouring would probably have wished for us to remember them with a smile.

And at this time of year especially, I could use a jack-o-lantern jolt of brightness and fun. November is my least favorite month of the year. My hypochondriac anxieties tend to rear their ugly head and I become convinced of my impending demise. Perhaps it’s the looming winter that gets me down, as the days grow shorter and darkness falls early. Whatever it is, Hallowe’en has always worked to cheer me up and banish the evil spirits.

DSC00241When my kids were small, we decorated the house, carved a pumpkin or two, loaded up on candy and went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. There were quite a few families with young children in our village near Lyon, and for awhile it felt like the event was catching on.

But it seems to have fizzled out lately, at least in our parts. The French look upon Hallowe’en as an American import, not really belonging to their culture. Fun for the wee ones, perhaps, but badly timed: it falls in the middle of the Toussaint school holidays when many people go away.

Whether you’re commemorating your dearly departed at the cemetery or warding off the evil spirits in full ghost and goblins regalia, may it be with joy. Wherever you are, and whoever you have lost, may this day bring you fond remembrance.

What about you? How do you celebrate Hallowe’en or All Saints’ Day? Party or bouquet of flowers?

Liz Smith as Nana*Nana, played by the excellent Liz Smith in The Royle Family