At the end of the summer, I lost a good friend. It was a shock– I didn't even know he was ill till the day of his death. I have had to go to my share of funerals in France, but this was the first time it has been for a close friend. I flew to his family's home city for the funeral, and for the first time, I went with the family to the graveyard.
The graveyards in France look very different from American ones, which no doubt were modeled after British. In the U.S., cemeteries are full of traditionally shaped tombstones– and these days, often of bronze or stone plaques set into the ground–and always have grass, trees and flowers. French graveyards, though, are small cities of stone, with lanes between. Père Lachaise, in Paris (below), is an unusually beautiful one. The graves are very often like this: little "houses" or chapels, or more commonly, large family graves in which one generation after another is buried under stone.
Arriving at the ancient chapel where the service was held, I saw the family standing outside, greeting everyone. They looked shell-shocked, but managed wan smiles. The coffin arrived in a hearse, and was carried by six pallbearers in black into the small church. We filed in after it.
Everyone at the funeral was dressed in black, even the children– there were several small ones, sitting solemnly in the front. After a beautiful short service, the priest led the pallbearers, carrying the coffin, and the family out of the church. We all walked slowly behind the family to the nearby graveyard. In the old days, the pallbearers would have walked first. Now, they put the coffin into a hearse for the short distance. As we walked, passersby stopped their chatter and stood aside respectfully.
We came to the old graveyard on a hill. It was a peaceful place with a beautiful view, but crowded with high stone tombs. We filed through the narrow paths to a monument with the family name on it. Two workers in black with crowbars, who had been waiting there, then pried off the stone slab from the front of the tomb. Inside and underneath the stone cover, a small black caveau, or vault, opened up, with at least ten coffins of various eras piled inside like bricks below the path. It was so odd to think of them just sitting there for generation after generation.
The priest said a last blessing. Last year he had officiated at a family wedding. He had been so ill then that everyone had been worried about his health, and here he was burying his younger friend instead. The pallbearers now carried the casket to the tomb. One of the workmen climbed inside and gently guided it as it slid on top of the other family coffins. Then he climbed out again, and the stone front was put back and sealed up. My friend was in his final resting place. It seemed so chilly, dark, and unfinished.
It was oddly unsatisfying. I realized I had never before seen a funeral where the coffin was not put into the ground, with the family around. In most of the U.S. funerals I've been to, it is also traditional for people to take a handful of earth and throw it on top of the coffin to say goodbye.
My friend's daughter came to stand beside me. She put her hand on my arm and said, "It is strange for you, isn't it? From the movies, I know that Americans put the coffin right into the earth."
I nodded, afraid to talk. My friend, a lover of history, had wanted to be buried in that graveyard where so many of his ancestors lay. His daughter told me that, in spite of the family name on it, the grave did not belong to close relatives, but to distant cousins who, on learning of the sudden death, had offered a place in their family vault. The graveyard was full and otherwise unavailable, so it was a great kindness. "No one does that kind of thing," someone told me later. "It shows you how much everyone loved him."
"I would have preferred to put the coffin into the earth– it seems more natural," my friend's daughter said. "But Papa would have been happy."