I’m interrupting my series about finding our house in France to tell you about a funeral we attended today. Mme P., the mother of a friend, died on Sunday aged 98. She would have been 99 in August.
Mme P. was born in the small village of V. and lived there all her life, dying in the house where she was born in 1912. She married, raised three children and ran the local épicerie (grocer’s) until she was 70. She barely knew her father, who was killed in action like so many during the First World War.
What changes she must have seen during her long life. Over that period, mechanisation spelt the end of traditional agriculture and the exodus from rural areas to the towns accelerated. Her own village, once a thriving borough with a school and a range of shops is now a rural backwater, populated mainly by elderly people. The school has long since disappeared and the Post Office is under threat but there is still an épicerie/boulangerie, a garage and a café-restaurant.
We assembled in the spring sunshine outside the small church at V. There must have been at least 200 people. Muted greetings were exchanged as we waited for the hearse to travel the short distance between Mme P’s house and the church. We followed the pall-bearers into the church and settled down to the traditional Catholic service, lasting about an hour.
It is the tradition in rural France to give people a good send-off. The whole village and most of the surrounding hamlets turn out and any residual enmities are forgotten in the solidarity of bereavement. There but for the grace of God, etc…
After the ceremony, the hearse set off at walking pace to the peaceful cemetery, situated at the bottom of the hill below the village in a tranquil green valley. We filed past the coffin beside the family vault, sprinkling it with holy water as we went, and then paid our respects to the dignified family, assembled outside the cemetery gate. The cuckoos and nightingales sang in the distance and the sun’s rays levelled as evening drew on.
My own memory of Mme P. is of a very dynamic and active lady up till a few years of her death, when a fall confined her mostly to her house. Previously, she made it a point of honour to accompany us on the outings of the club des ainés. She trotted about commenting on the sights and sat down to a good lunch to which she always did justice.
On one occasion, we had just finished lunch at Maleville in the Aveyron. Mme P. had brought with her a letter that she wanted to post, but she hadn’t had time to do so before the coach left V. that morning. I offered to put it in the post-box a couple of hundred metres down the road. She smilingly waved aside my offer and set off briskly, aged 95, negotiating high pavements and a rutted and uneven road to get there.
Mme P. was one of Gray’s “mute, inglorious Milton[s]”*. She never achieved greatness, but nonetheless left her mark in her way on a small community. She lived a little longer than nearly all of her classmates and was probably ready to go, in the end.
*Thomas Gray, Elegy written in a country churchyard, published 1751.
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