Funerals in France

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


Hi Piers,
It might be useful to others if you could give an idea of the Region or Departement in which you are situated in France.

Used a celebrant at my fathers (UK) funeral last month. Absolutely the right thing to do for him. Many mourners commented on the very personal nature of the service. Of course, in the UK there is something like 2-3 weeks to arrange everything and this article has made me ‘sit up and think’ about what we should do here in the Charente.

A good heads up for those not familiar with the time scale here (2 days being pretty much the norm from death to funeral) My French family, friends and customers couldn’t believe the near three week gap from my father’s death to his funeral in the UK.

Out of curiosity, could one have the cremation within the French time scale and then organise a service after that with the ashes rather than the coffin? Just trying to think of the family living outside of France trying to rush here.
Earlier this year we lost my MIL in Wales and the whole thing was delayed by 5 extra days, so it was just over 2 weeks from her death to the funeral, so that everyone could gather. We are a very scattered family from Europe to the Middle East.
I have often felt bad in the past at missing friends and neighbours funerals here in france because they happened so quickly before I even knew the person had left us

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Hi Robert - I’m in 86.

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Hi Tim - thanks for your response to my post. A lot of people have been in touch saying similar things about being prepared, so I’m glad to have been a help. If you have or hear of situations where a celebrant in France would be useful then I’d be glad for you to pass on my details.

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Hi Andrew. Thanks for the response. Yes, it happens so quickly, so even as a Celebrant I’m pushed to make a visit, learn a person’s story and prepare a funeral in time. It’s important work to get right.

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Hi Claire

Yes, thats a good idea, and one which I’ve sometimes done even back in the UK. This was sometimes because the family couldn’t cope with the idea of a large gathering immediately but later wanted something that was able to celebrate the person’s life with their wider community of friends, but the same idea would work when gathering people from different parts of the world might be problematic.

My Aunt in Devon was done that way, we had a small wooden box of ashes that was interred . Also my Grandmothers funeral was sort of done that way as my Uncle deliberately held the cremation before any one could get there. So we had a funeral service with her ashes. So there wouldn’t be any reason not to do that in France?

At a slight tangent, we need guidance on how to respond to a family who are suffering the shock of the sudden death of their 26 year old son, they are French and our next door neighbours.
We are friendly and do each other favours … chicken sitting, occasional drinks, tool sharing etc. the mother came and told us of the death in the early hours of Friday as she was worried we were disturbed by the presence of the SAMU and gendarmes (who attended as it was an unexpected death)
I wonder if we should call, or just send a card, would we be intrusive if we asked to go to the funeral. Should I bake a cake? Honestly don’t know what’s best to do. There are numerous family members providing support.
Thanks for any help you can give us.

Go to the funeral, it will be appreciated.

Just a couple of points Piers.

My wife passed away five years ago, it was a friday lunchtime. The undertakers phoned the crematorium to fix a date and they gave the following wednesday at 0900 hrs. If she had passed away the friday morning she would have bee cremated the following today afternoon.
At the crematorium I was asked to sign a paper stating where the ashes would be dispersed. I put down Fraserburgh in Scotland as her final destination (I could only state one destination) and was told that legally I had one year to dispose of the ashes meaning I could retain the urn at my house for one year or wherever I wishes. I still have the signed paper somewhere. As it happened I retained the urn for about two years until returning to the UK by whch tie I had dispersed some of the ashes in France followed by a churchyard in Norfolk, a place in Cambridge and the rest in Scotland. Pont is, the rules are there but no one will check on such matters, the authorities have better things to do.


Thank you David. I sent a card and a cake, talked to her and gave her a hug. We went to the funeral, at the crematorium. To my buttoned up English eyes it was chaos. The lack of structure, whether you want a religious element or not, I found difficult. Hopefully the family found it more comforting than I did.

It’s a shame you found the service difficult. I recently attended the funeral of the father of one of my friends. He had lived within our commune all his life and the church was packed. I thought the slightly less formal nature of the service was uplifting, a celebration of the life of the departed not the heavy religious ceremony that I’d been expecting.

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We’ve had 5 funerals in our village, in the last 3 weeks…so emotions are running high.

The latest, just this Friday, was for a young person who had committed suicide. Parents, siblings, workmates and friends all had their say. Their words coming from the heart.

The church was packed and we were all given a photocopy, in case tears overcame whoever was Speaking.

As these things go…this was a beautiful ceremony… with the personal and religious interspersed with gentle music and songs rather than the dirges we so often hear.

In my experience, there are 2 sets of folk. Those who stay outside the church to hug and offer words…and those who follow the coffin inside… If you knew the deceased and/or the family, your presence will be appreciated in either case.

Hi, I am having great difficulty in locating a Humanist Celebrant for funerals in or around department 50. Any ideas, suggestions would be welcome. Many thanks.