Visiting the Dead
Growing up in England, I can’t remember my parents making any pilgrimages to relatives’ graves. I think I went to my grandparents’ graves a couple of times at most. Clearly paying respects to the dearly departed was not high on the list of priorities. In France it’s the opposite. In the rural south west, graveyards are alive with colour, especially at this time of year. Evidence of this tradition, in the days leading up to the famous Toussaint is everywhere….those endless rows of plastic pots filled with chrysanthemums in every conceivable colour can be found at supermarkets, florists and even garages. Toussaint or All Saints Day on 1 November, is the day to honour and remember family members who have died.
I’ve always really enjoyed walking around graveyards looking at gravestones, imagining their lives, working out their ages. In the UK, graveyards tend to be pretty haphazard, unless they are military graves. There’s something so gothic and Victorian about the leaning headstones, surrounded by nature, and large mature trees. You carefully try and step around a combination of ancient slabs, broken crosses or statues, and headstones, trying to avoid stepping on someone’s grave.
In the Gers, the cemeteries, are generally slightly outside of villages. Apparently, this was because until relatively recently people were buried in a fosse commune, unless they were nobility, so for hygiene reasons they tended to be away from village inhabitants. The idea of being buried en masse without any marking seems pretty miserable, and clearly there wasn’t a tradition of visiting a pit. How things have changed. Visiting the dead is now quite different.
I walk around local cemeteries here and I’m always taken aback by the huge family vaults, which seem to reflect the status or importance of the family in the village. I went to a cemetery recently and saw an enormous vault had been built, but without any names. Clearly the family had made this investment in preparation for future deaths. A vault that size must have cost an enormous amount, which clearly demonstrates its importance. In our own village cemetery, I recognize most of the family names, as their descendants clearly still live in the village, so people are still close to their origins.
The other impressive difference between France and the UK, and I think it’s actually more of a southern French tradition, is the personalized plaques which are placed on the vaults and graves. Sometimes the plaques include a photograph of the deceased, which I find slightly creepy, particularly if it’s in colour for some reason. There’s a huge range, including every type of relative you can imagine, friends, neighbours, fellow hunters and anciens combattants. Some vaults are absolutely covered in the full range – I have to say, it does make me think they were more popular – and I guess that’s what you’re supposed to think.
So, back to the Toussaint, when the tradition on 1 November is to tidy your relative’s grave. Go to any cemetery on the 2 November and the place is transformed – graves are swept, fresh flowers are lain, and the ubiquitous pots of chrysanthemums are precariously dotted around in a multitude of colours. It’s impressive. However, turn up at the same cemetery a couple of weeks later and most of the plastic pots are on their side, and it looks a little forgotten.
I’m always touched by these traditions and struck by how rooted people are to the region. It’s such a contrast compared with my own family.
Although it seems unlikely, I still managed to make a cemetery faux pas when I first arrived. I ’d noticed the grave of the previous owners of our house at the local cemetery, so my husband and I decided it would be a nice idea to tidy it and lay some flowers as a sign of our appreciation of the house. What we hadn’t factored in, was the granddaughter of the owner apparently visits each year, so I always imagine the sight of her grandparents’ grave being smartened up was actually probably pretty weird.