As a Celebrant in France, most of my work so far has been conducting weddings, and next year I already have a growing number of bookings for such happy occasions – but funerals too are an important part of my role, as they are of our lives.
Recently I conducted a funeral ceremony for a lady who had died in a head-on collision on a local road. Whilst it was a very sad occasion, it was a huge privilege for me to be able to be alongside a husband and daughter, as well as their wider family and friends, in such difficult moments. The couple had been married for sixty years, so it was important to be able to conduct a ceremony which told their story and celebrated a life well-lived - and for this to be in English.
I’ve left it a few weeks to reflect on this experience out of respect, but there are a few things that stand out to me from the experience that might be worth sharing with the English-speaking community in France:
- Things happen quickly when someone dies in France. In this case the speed with which things happened was troubling. The husband was informed of his wife’s death by gendarmes who were accompanied by an undertaker, assisted by a kind neighbour who helped with translation. Within seconds of being told of the road accident and his wife’s passing by the police, the gentleman was also asked to choose a coffin and make arrangements for the funeral.
Whilst this may seem shocking, my point here is not to criticise, but to inform. With French law requiring funerals to take place within six working days from the death (except in special circumstances), families can expect things to progress at a speed UK families may not be used to. So it is worth being prepared as far as possible – talking with your partner or family about what your wishes would be regarding your funeral. What sort of ceremony would you like? Who would you want to conduct it? Which language(s) should it be in? Would you like (or prefer to avoid) any religious content? What music should be played at the crematorium? What readings?
The list goes on – and is probably not something people want to address, but doing so can help the one who is left behind having to start from scratch. The last thing a partner needs whilst dealing with the immediate loss of a loved one is to have to desperately try to remember a song for the crematorium that their loved one used to really like.
The time given by an undertaker for a cremation is exactly that – the time at which a person’s remains will be cremated. A ceremony beforehand will be twenty minutes or so earlier. This often leads to confusion for guests who imagine the ceremony is at this time and in this case one of the people speaking at the funeral was late due to this confusion. Thankfully, I was able to make sure they still had opportunity to speak.
The ashes of a deceased person are dealt with differently in France. In this case the husband had agreed to their internment in a local cemetery, but this had been a misunderstanding made due to the speed at which he was making arrangements following learning of his wife’s death. In fact, the family wished the ashes to be returned to the UK. It was only after the ceremony at the crematorium when the undertaker asked me if I would be present at the ceremony in the afternoon as well that I realised the ashes were to be buried that same day. I quickly made sure that I had understood properly what was happening, and then checked with the family, who assured me they did not want the ashes burying in France. I spoke to the undertaker who made a call to cancel the burial. If I had not had that conversation then the ashes would have been buried, with no family members present, and thus the ashes would not have been returned to the UK. Once we had cancelled the burial of the ashes we could begin to arrange the collection of the ashes for return to the UK – this is something slightly more complicated than in England, as in France ashes are not legally allowed to be kept at a private house, and if travelling back to the UK must have paperwork drawn up for customs to see.
It’s ok to be honest about what we believe, and about what don’t believe, about death. When I was a minister in the UK I would often be alongside families at their darkest times - when they were facing the loss of someone they loved. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trying to appear to be religious for my benefit. They would say things like, ‘She alway loved Songs of Praise’, as if I would think better of them somehow. Not only didn’t this work, it also diminished the true version of the person - who may have perfectly good reasons for never going to church, praying or believing.
Now I’m no longer a minister I have freedom to lead ceremonies which reflect the honestly held views of those I walk alongside - if they want a prayer, or the 23rd Psalm to be read, that’s fine. If they want a ceremony which reflects a life which has found God to be a problem rather than a benefit, then that’s fine too. In this case, as in all of the ceremonies I lead, the emphasis was on being human first - celebrating a life, being grateful for all that had happened over eighty years, supporting those left behind and enabling remembering with smiles as much as possible.
Sadly, whether through accident, illness or simply growing old, funerals are going to be a part of our lives – and, of course, our own is something to prepare for. Living in France brings its own challenges, and being informed and prepared in advance is something that perhaps we can do to make things as easy as possible for those we leave behind.
Do get in touch if I can be of service to you or your family.