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?

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