Saturday, May 8, 2010

RIP in France.. or maybe not

Living as a permanent residence in France, or indeedy any country will eventually result in your death. Even the most wonderful rural environment cannot put off this certainty. If you are easily offended by an arguably irreverent look at life after death, or maybe recently bereaved, I suggest you do not read this post.

Whilst there is a lot of information available on various wibbly wobbly web sites and many books available about Living in France, there is minimal information about Dying in France, so maybe it is best to do some research before you ‘pop yer clogs.’

Rest assured there will be a lot of beaureaocracy involved and each Department will have different rules. The only sensible advice I can really offer is to contact the British Embassy and your local Maire to find out the national and local procedures.

I would not say I am pre-occupied with death, but after a career as a nurse, black humour is still an essential part of my survival strategy, especially as I get older and more likely to have an appointment with Le Reaper Grim in the not too distant future.

Cemeteries in France are usually beautifully kept gardens, with lavish headstones remembering the life of the deceased. Many of the memorials are similar to greenhouses, probably family tombs and look very gracious. It is odd that a glasshouse, or greenhouse is rare for the propagation of vegetable and flowers in this area of France, the plastic poly tunnel being the preferred method of nurturing small plants. I suppose a poly tunnel in a cemetery is not really appropriate.

I gather it is illegal to take pictures of cemeteries in France, without permission, so imagine some of the older Victorian cemeteries in England and you will get an idea of the grandeur and splendour. When I was young, many years ago, I used to love to walk in the Brompton Cemetery in London. The history of the resting families was fascinating and it was difficult to resist taking a peek through the locked gates of some of the family crypts, peering nervously through the broken slates on the floor to spy a coffin resting on a shelf in its crypt.

Driving through small French villages it is always a pleasure to see so much pride in the maintenance of these silent walled areas. As mentioned in a previous blog post, November 1st ‘All Saints Day’ or ‘Dead Rellies Day’ as we call it, when families travel throughout France to remember their forebears by placing Chrysanthemums on graves to further beautify the cemeteries with stunning autumnal colours.

I expect grave charges are dependant on location and department. I do know that if these charges are not paid when required, the deceased is dug up and removed elsewhere. Signs are left on cemetery gates to indicate who is next for removal. This must be the ultimate disgrace for family members who will not, or maybe cannot, afford to pay.

A rather nice tradition I have observed in the local town is the placing of a ‘book of condolence’ ourside the house of a newly deceased person for neighbours and friends to record a message of sympathy.

When we first moved to France, in August 2003, we were somewhat amused when we discovered funeral plaques for sale on the shelves of Garden Centres. We considered buying one for our house name plate, but decided it would probably be disrespectful to the elderly and ancient residents in our village.

Our first, and only experience of a funeral in France was somewhat bizarre and went something like this.

A Brit who we knew, but not very well, died and the ex-pat community were all invited to attend his funeral.

We arrived at the church in his village at the appointed time and stood around waiting for the church to be opened and the hearse to arrive. After some time, a Ford Transit type van, with blacked out windows arrived. There were no names on the van and we wondered if this was a visiting rock group or the local electrician. From nowhere the priest appeared; the back of the van was opened and the coffin was pulled out by a handful of men who looked as though their suits were borrowed from much thinner people. It was not carried at shoulder height, merely transported like a large piece of luggage.

We all lined up and followed the cortege into the church. Being unsure of who should sit where, not sure if left hand or right hand side applies to funerals as it does to weddings, we all shuffled into the pews and waited.

The priest began the service in French, so the vast majority of ex-pats had no idea what was going on. We heard the deceased’s name being mentioned a few times, so we knew we were in the right place.

Hearing a creaking sound from the doors behind us, we all turned and saw a woman, rush in and make her way to the front of the church. She was probably a local villager, wearing a Mac (overcoat, not a laptop) over her pinny. At first she sang the responses to the priests warbling cries and then sang, quite beautifully, a song or hymn and departed as quickly as she had appeared.

At the end of the service the coffin was replaced in the unmarked van for the drive to the cemetery. We all scrambled back in our cars for the drive to the south of the village. We all “followed the van” making sure we did not “dilly dally on the way.”

It was a very hot day, black tights and high heeled shoes along with sombre clothing identifying the British women in the party, whilst the British men wore suits and ties. These dreadfully uncomfortable shoes and suits were no doubt found at the back of the wardrobe as they are not normal dress for rural ex-pat life. The local French had arrived in jeans and T shirts. Of course this is not disrespectful. Many British people still wear black or sombre colours after Queen Victoria introduced the mourning habit in Great Britain, following the death of her beloved Albert.

When we arrived at the cemetery, it was interesting to see a large hole, concrete lined and comfy looking for the resting place of our departed pal. I was rather taken with this concrete lining as no doubt it would reduce the invasion of underground wildlife.

The undertaker asked the deceased’s wife, a rather large woman, if she would like, when she was buried, to be placed beside him or on top. She laughed and said if she was placed on top she would squash him to death. The coffin was eventually placed to one side of the grave and then the whole funeral party walked past the grave, throwing in a flower and maybe saying a silent prayer.

After the burial (inhumation) it was back to the widow’s house for the usual bun-fight. Some French people, including the Maire and Mrs Maire attended for a while but soon left.

The widow told us about the procedure following her husband’s death, which had us all in fits of laughter.

Apparently her husband had died whilst sitting in a chair, watching her paint a wall. She has since finished painting it as she felt he would want the job finished.

She had turned round to speak to him and realising he had gone she telephoned the pompiers (Firemen) who are the first port of call for any emergency as they are also paramedics.

When they arrived they took the body upstairs and laid it on the marriage bed. The next caller was the Maire, he was required to come to identify the body. Next the doctor came and certified the death, which had been expected as there had been a chronic heart condition. I am sure the Maire of large French towns does not undertake this formal identification and can imagine British mayors resenting this additional duty, probably because of Health and Safety issues.

In the United Kingdom we would expect the body to be removed by the undertakers. No siree, not here. The undertakers came to the house and embalmed the body, leaving, so we understood from the widow, large amounts of blood spatter, worthy of a CSI investigation, all over the floor, walls and the bed. Being a house proud person she soon cleared this up, but how awful for the poor woman.

The deceased stayed lying on the bed, accompanied by his two little dogs, until the funeral 48 hours later. I believe the widow slept in a different room. Would I mind sleeping in the same house as a dead Monsieur Darling, in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch black? Not sure about that one, will need a bit of thought.

We all left the widow to clear up the glasses and debris after a suitable amount of alcohol to see the deceased on his way and it set me a~pondering, as is my habit, after a new experience.

We understand, that had he wished to return to England to be buried it was a right palaver, including stopping at every department (county) on the journey through France for official permission to enter and leave. The passport of the deceased is required to stay with the coffin until repatriation is complete.

Flying a body back is now, I gather, difficult due to current terrorism controls but in any case a zinc lined casket is required and it can take an age to get a flight. The cost of transferring a body back to England can be in excess of £3000. This particular funeral cost about the same amount. It is interesting to note that the children of the deceased are held responsible for the cost of a funeral in France.

Firstly I was considering my children. They would be totally appalled, and rightly horrified at a service being held to send me on my way after my death in a language they did not understand. Would it be possible, in a rural area, to find an English speaking priest? Plus I am not a Catholic and France is predominantly a Catholic country. All in all it seemed a bit of a nonsense and very complicated.

Monsieur Darling and I discussed the issue of the disposal of our mortal remains including cremation, which is still a minority option for most French people. Alternatively we could, with permission, be buried in our own garden and maybe get a friend to say a few words as we were placed in the ground.

We considered the fun aspect of driving the dead person home. Experience had shown us that driving off the Ferry in Portsmouth was quite simple. We had arrived once, at 6 a.m. and I was schnuggled down in the passenger seat. Monsieur Darling showed the customs people our passports and they did not even look at either of us, let alone check to see if we were alive or dead. Knowing our luck, the first of us to pop off will do so during a hot summer and that journey home would be most unpleasant with a dead body as a passenger.

So we have decided and informed our children that we shall be cremated in France and our ashes returned to our relevant children for dividing up and keeping if they wish, or disposal. I have no particular choice of place for disposal and fully expect my younger son to want to take charge of the urn. I am confident he will give me a glass of wine on Sundays and no doubt pop his ciggie ash in my urn to feed my addiction in the after life.

Younger son has ‘previous’ on ashes hoarding. He was adamant, at age 13 that he keep the ashes of a much loved golden retriever. After a few years he decided to scatter these. Unfortunately the family home was on the south coast sea front and he chose a day to chuck the ashes off the balcony when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and the whole house was filled with ash. He was distraught but everyone else was highly amused as the ash made a change from the golden retriever dog hairs which had previously covered the house.

Monsieur Darling has decided he would like to be scattered at the Watercress Railway Line, in Hampshire, UK and I am sure his children will undertake this task for him.

How we get the ashes back to England is another thought, hand luggage is probably not an option and luggage in the hold could get lost!

So, although most people do not wish to consider their exit strategy, I respectfully suggest any ex-pat researches and considers all the options before the stress of an actual death is exacerbated by beaurocratic French systems.

It is also maybe important to add that in France children inherit a deceased person's estate. A spouse may have a lifetime interest in property or share 50% of the spoils when it is sold, with the children of the deceased person. This can potential problems on second or third marriages where children are involved, as the assets are divided equally between all relevant children.

Making a Will in France is also odd. It is a handwritten document, signed, but not witnessed. Your local Notaire or Lawyer will provide you with a copy of the required format. The Will is then lodged with your legal representative in France for execution when the time arrives. If you are resident in France, a British Will comes second to French Will.