A Grave Issue

Local cemetery

Local cemetery

Sorry; I couldn’t resist the pun. Our local commune’s Bulletin Municipal (annual report) contains a lot of practical information. This year’s included an article about regulations relating to cemeteries. Now, none of us wants to dwell on our mortality but if you live in France you need to know how they do things. And you’ll find a few surprises.

In France, cemeteries are often on the outskirts of towns and villages, whereas the church is in the centre. Some of the older churches around here have a graveyard; for example, the church at Tesseyroles, which we are helping to restore, and the beautiful little chapel at Selgues, recently restored to its former glory. Cemeteries are peaceful places, unfrequented except around Toussaint (All Saint’s Day, 1st November) when the French remember their forebears. Then they become hives of activity as people clean and adorn their family vaults with pots of chrysanthemums.

Chapel and graveyard at Selgues

Chapel and graveyard at Selgues

Getting a concession

To be buried in a particular cemetery you have to acquire a “concession”. This gives you the right to a plot of land in which to bury a coffin or an urn. The local mairie allocates concessions. Nothing obliges them to comply with your request, unless you have a family vault in one of the local cemeteries. Then you can be buried there even if you don’t live in that commune.

If the commune has several cemeteries – ours has nine – the conseil municipal (town council) decides where to grant the concession. The SF and I are wondering what our status would be in relation to Teysseroles. Although our house is within the parish of Teysseroles, we are actually in a different commune.

Church at Teysseroles

Church at Teysseroles

Several types of concession exist and cannot be changed once the contract is signed. For example, it might cover only a couple or the couple and any of their descendants for the duration of the concession. A concession lasts for a fixed length of time and is renewable: 30 years in the case of our commune. They are no longer granted in perpetuity.

If you seek for a monument

Modern style of monument

Modern style of monument

The holder of the concession has the right to build a vault or a monument and even to fence off their plot. If you want an inscription or epitaph in addition to names and dates you have to request authorisation from the mairie. In return, you have to maintain, decorate and visit the tomb regularly. If a tomb is abandoned for a certain length of time, the mairie has the right to take back the concession.

Here is the surprising bit: before 8th January 2007, you didn’t need a permis de construire (planning permission) for statues or monuments less than 12 metres high or of a volume less than 40 cubic metres. 12 metres! That’s almost twice as tall as our house, which has three storeys and a very tall pigeonnier. The law was changed in 2007 to remove the 12 metre height limit altogether, provided the cemetery is not a site classé. In practice, however, maires have the power to limit the height of monuments to that of the wall encircling the cemetery. Phew!

Nonetheless, when it comes to the style and design of monuments, people have free rein. Without wishing to cause offence, I have to say that some funerary monuments are complete monstrosities. When the architect from Bâtiments de France visited the Teysseroles site, he wasn’t exactly complimentary about the recent polished granite tombs. He felt they were not in keeping with the stone and architectural style of the district. But, of course, taste in these matters is a very personal thing, strongly influenced by national culture.

Funeral etiquette

We have attended a number of funerals here. The local population is quite elderly so it’s only to be expected. Families expect that the neighbours will pay their last respects to the deceased, who is laid out in state in the house before the funeral. Everyone in the district attends the service, which is sometimes a very long funeral mass. Non-attendance is frowned upon, unless you are ill or otherwise engaged. A French friend is related to just about everyone in the area and seems to attend a funeral a week.

I remember cramming into the back of the unheated church at Félines for the funeral of our neighbour’s mother on what was probably the coldest day of the year. The whole thing lasted about 90 minutes, followed by the burial at the cemetery and the line-up where you have to queue to offer your condolences to the family. I wouldn’t be surprised if another few were carried off that day. At the other end of the scale, we attended several funerals during the blisteringly hot summer of 2003, when we had to stand outside in the blazing sun to listen to the funeral orations.

On another occasion, every member of the congregation had to go up and sprinkle the coffin with holy water in the sign of the cross: not something I have had to do before. But I take the line that, if in doubt, just do what the one in front of you does – and hope they know what they’re doing.

This might not seem a jolly subject but it’s all part of the fabric of life in rural France.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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15 Responses to A Grave Issue

  1. john joseph says:

    hello
    Am I entitled to a plot in my commune or do I have to pay, prebook etc etc ?
    By the way, assurance obseque seems a bit of a rip off, I considered it, the basic policy was 11 euros per month for the rest of my life for a 3k payout to the Pompes funeraries, I chose a life assurance (Genia) policy instead at 7.99 euros a month, it goes up a little over the years but pays out 11k, I guess that should cover a respectable funeral

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    • nessafrance says:

      If you’re resident in a commune you have the right to be buried in one of its cemeteries, as I understand it. However, you have to buy a plot from the commune first (a “concession”) and they can decide which cemetery it will be in – which is not necessarily the one of your choice. It’s worth checking with your local mairie about their policy. And, as you demonstrate, when it comes to insurance, it’s always a good idea to shop around.

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  2. Sue Whatmough says:

    Hmmm – the whole idea of being buried in a cemetery appals me. I would like my ashes to be scattered out in nature somewhere. I don’t now whether she obtained formal permission, but nonetheless a friend of mine in T & G was able to scatter her husband’s under his favourite tree. She passes there most days when walking the dog and stops for a few moments to talk to him. I think that’s much nicer.

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    • nessafrance says:

      The SF would like his ashes to be scattered on a mountain top in the Cantal. I also don’t like the idea of being buried and would go for being scattered somewhere. I wouldn’t mind it being the churchyard at Teysseroles, but I don’t suppose that’s allowed. No doubt there’s all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to go through.

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  3. Interesting that they can take back the concession if the site is not maintained. I presume that is before it is actually used?

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    • nessafrance says:

      No, in fact they have the right to take it back only if it has been abandoned for at least 30 years after the last interment, if I understand the regulations correctly. And then I think someone has to complain formally in writing to start the process.

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  4. Evelyn says:

    Fascinating post, Vanessa! I have a ‘thing’ for cemeteries and try to wander thru any I find in my explorations. Some of the gravestones, epitaphs, and souvenirs are tell very interesting stories. I’m always intrigued by the ones that have pictures of the deceased. I need to do a bit more investigation of funeral etiquette. I was told that here in this village, you don’t go to the funeral unless you know the person or are ‘invited’ and that people don’t normally send condolence cards. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived here long enough to belong? A friend and I eavesdropped on a Basque funeral last summer. It was, indeed, a long mass, but the singing and music was astounding! And the flowers were amazing. I may do a blog post on the Cajarc cemetery and link to yours, if that’s okay.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Interesting that it varies within 40 kilometres. Here, it’s definitely expected that everyone turns up – even if you hardly knew the person. Condolence cards are not normally sent unless you know the family quite well. I’ll be interested to read your post on Cajarc cemetery.

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  5. amelie88 says:

    It’s interesting to see the differences of funeral rites in different cultures. Here in the US it depends on the religion and on the family. Something that is common in the US is what we call a “wake” in which family members and friends come to the funeral home (not the house where the person lived or died) to pay their respects to the family of the deceased person–something that is not as common in other cultures I’ve noticed. This usually does not happen on the same day as the funeral, usually a day or two before. Some people can’t make it to the funeral so they will use the wake as a way to pay respects to the family. Sometimes the casket is open and sometimes it is closed, it depends on the family’s wishes. For both of my grandparents, we left it open.

    Since I am Roman Catholic, before the actual funeral, the close family members gather at the funeral home and then follow the coffin in the hearse to the church. We have a funeral mass (generally lasting only about an hour) and then only the family members will follow the hearse with the coffin to the cemetery. The coffin will be placed on top of the hole dug for the grave and the family will gather around for a few last words. For both my grandparents, we were given flowers (I think they were roses) and left them on the casket. We do not actually stick around for the actual burial. The workers who do this will lower the casket into the grave with that fancy contraption thing, I forget what it is called. Some religions/families may do this, but like I said it really depends on the family and the traditions they follow. Afterwards, there is usually a reception at a family member’s house to invite the funeral guests to eat food and gather round to celebrate the life of the person who died.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for this interesting information. Nearly everyone in our district is Roman Catholic (except for immigrés like us) and the procedure tends to be the same for all funerals – with the occasional exception. Sometimes they ask people back for a drink after the funeral but more often they don’t.

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  6. Chris and I had a wander round the cemetery in Boussac while killing time while Rors was at judo. There are some truly appalling monstrosities of monuments there and it’s right up against a very ugly factory wall. Not a pretty site. I was planning a death-based blog but you’ve beaten me to it! I’ll put mine on hold for a while. I have to say I find the idea of family plots truly macabre…

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    • nessafrance says:

      Most of the cemeteries around here are in pleasant spots with a lovely view – but some of the monuments are truly awful. I’m sure your post will have a different angle, so go ahead.

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      • Evelyn says:

        I agree that the new marble ones are kind of hideous and look totally out of place in the old cemeteries like the one at Teysseroles. The only time they are truly lovely is when they’re covered with flowers on Toussaint! Some of the sculpture and iron work on the really old grave sites is quite beautiful, tho.

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      • nessafrance says:

        Like you, I like the older tombstones, which are generally in keeping with the local style. Some of the modern ones are ugly and don’t fit at all.

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