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?


‘Tis better to be a vowel than a consonant if you want to be heard en français.

In French, while the likes of r’s, s’s and t’s are often silent, every vowel is given a voice. Thus the word for mute – muet – is pronounced ‘mew-ay’.

Two voices that defined French culture have gone silent this week. The news arrived as death often does: seemingly out of nowhere, then one after another.

First was Jean d’Ormesson. The 92-year-old ‘immortel’, as members of the Académie Française are known, was a larger-than-life character and a bon vivant among the aged and wise members of that illustrious body responsible for governing the French language. This France 3 clip (in French for those who understand enough to enjoy it) is a portrait of the man in all his wit and personality.

Yesterday morning broke the news that we would no longer hear the voice of Johnny Hallyday, notre Johnny national, icon of French rock music and a personality as deeply engrained in the culture as les frites (not a bad analogy as Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian father). He was ‘only’ 74, far too young these days even for one who has led as wild a life as Johnny.

When I first came to France I scoffed at this so-called rock star, seemingly a throw-back to an outdated notion of rock and roll, more Chuck Berry than French Elvis as he is often dubbed abroad. Yet I came to appreciate Johnny’s fine voice, honed to a richness that somehow transcended time, and his unstoppable stage presence. Here is a clip of how he set the Eiffel Tower on fire (Le feu) back in 2000.

By the way, while no one will ever replace our Johnny, my application for a place on the Académie Française still stands.

La mort


What is it about November that always makes me think of death?

It comes in on the ghoulish, cold breath of Halloween, with La Toussaint – All Saints’ Day – and la Fête des Morts. On November 11th, we honour the soldiers who lost their lives defending our freedom. We set the clocks back and suddenly the light that lingered in our afternoons disappears, just as the rain sets in with the cold and damp.

Perhaps it’s only normal and right that in the final throes of autumn, as winter creeps in, we think about our own mortality.

The problem is that death – la mort – is the ultimate taboo. People in our society will talk about politics, sex, religion, money – anything at all with greater ease than they do this ultimate and inevitable stage of life.

We fear it. We deny it. We live our lives pretending that it will never happen. And then one day there it is: the end of the story. And we weep. We feel sadness for the loss of a loved one, for our own impending death. We grieve and remember and then, we forget about it all over again.

We’ve all lost loved ones, some very close and all too recently. It’s normal to grieve. I still miss my mother, whose death came all too early, and my Belle-Mère, whose recent absence is deeply felt in our family.

In France this is not something that we talk about any more than it is in Canada or any other country in the west. Death is something tragic, a horrible fate that befalls us all too soon. It is best forgotten until it must be dealt with.

And yet, death is as natural as birth. Why can’t we embrace the end of life with the same courage and honesty as we do its beginning? Why do all the obituaries say that people pass ‘peacefully’? I don’t know when or where or how I’ll go but it’s unlikely to be without a bitter struggle, an argument or a complaint.

If the laws stay the way they are now, let’s be honest, it’s not likely to be a happy ending. Why can’t we choose our death, and die with dignity and love and perhaps a modicum of comfort and the human joy we had in life?

There is a lot of work to be done to change this state of affairs. The Swiss are way ahead of us with the association ‘Dignitas’ that enables a dignified end of life and doctor-assisted suicide. Terry Pratchett also has a few good thoughts on this.

I don’t want a funeral, (unless perhaps a ‘fun’-eral as Nana, in the unforgettable Royles, asked for). I don’t want to be buried but cremated, my ashes sprinkled somewhere in a place I loved. The spreading of ashes being illegal in France, if it happens here I’ll go out in law-breaking style.

And by the way, Royle family creator and comic genius Caroline Aherne’s death a few months ago left me gutted.

Do you think about death? What are your wishes?