Thursday, November 22, 2007

A cheery subject

" Why do people always die in November?" I asked.
" They don't always. Sometimes they die in other months."
We pondered whether this last sentence made semantic sense.


" These coats were a good buy."
" Yeah, if only for funerals." I reply.
" Not only. We've worn them for concerts too."
" I know. And parties, and lots of things. But quite a few funerals."

The coats are both charcoal grey, simply cut, the best we could find a few years ago now. I balked a little at the price, but Tom doesn't believe in cheapskating ( or looking for bargains as I call it ). Mine is long, with a full skirt, somewhat Napoleonic. His is straighter and shorter, but has a touch of cashmere. When I saw him step out from the crowd later and embrace the dead woman's father, who had come towards him holding out his hand, I felt an enormous surge of love and pride. Tom is not tall, but in a Breton crowd he is, the charcoal cashmere coat was a further distinction.

I regard funerals as something like going to the dentist. They hang over me, almost certain to be a less than pleasant experience, but I'll see how much they hurt when the time comes, and mostly try to absent as much of my consciousness as possible. They seem to be more frequent in our life than weddings or christenings, an aging population of course, but also, while it is possible and more and more common to be born, fall in love, live together and have babies without ritual, it is more difficult to die without it.

In France, it seems, one's spiritual state is like many things, neatly pigeonholed into a limited system of categories: croyant et pratiquant - believing and practising (you go to church), croyant mais non-pratiquant - believing but not practising (you don't go to church but God doesn't mind, so you can use the church for stuff when it suits you) , non-croyant - atheist. That's about it, though I daresay there are quite a few people turning up at church without really believing a word of it, the category of pratiquant mais non-croyant is not as far as I know acknowledged. Where it leaves France's apparently very numerous Buddhists, many of whom could also be said to be practising but not believing, or the likes of me, living 'a life of doubt diversified by faith', for whom the essence of worthwhile spirituality is to dwell ever in a cloud of unknowing, believing sometimes in I-know-not-what, sometimes in nothing, hoping and holding always onto those moments a sense of ineffable knowing, or rather being known, supporting utterly the necessity of reason and scepticism, at times longing for and tempted by a home in organised religion, but fearing that that home would soon become a prison etc etc, I don't know. " I don't know", Peter Abelard's last words, they say...

"Straight to the cemetery," Josette said, with a shrug. "they were not croyants."

And straight to the cemetery we went, in the filthiest weather November could manage. Because although this is a secular state, where they don't even know how many people call themselves believing, non-believing, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist or any thing else, because it's forbidden to ask on the census, if you don't want a the Catholic works in the church, or presumably another religious equivalent, you are, in this case quite literally, out in the cold. It ain't necessarily so; when an English friend died a few years ago, there was a small service at the crematorium chapel. It was officiated by an English speaking RC priest, (a very likeable Irish-Australian who often does bilingual offices of this kind, and who, as a hospital chaplain, befriended a hospitalised elderly friend, a staunch atheist, who has since had nothing but good to say of him,) but we had the impression that there was little religious requirement. Yet there are still relatively few takers for cremation, it was illegal until the 20th century here, and people are still frankly spooked by it, a hangover from the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and also, I've heard suggested, from the Nazis, the Deportation and the ovens. In any case, there wouldn't be enough room in the small crematorium chapels for the hundreds who like to show up to pay respects, as much to the family as to the deceased themselves, at many funerals. The crowd at this one packed the open part of the cemetery and extended way beyond the gates, umbrellas and all.

" I prayed to the Good God " said Josette ( as opposed to which other, I sometimes wonder when this expression is used) " to stop the rain for just long enough, then it can ... paf ! "

However, her petition must have been put in the wrong slot, as it carried on raining fairly uninterrupted throughout, though it did brighten up a bit afterwards. We stood under a porous carapace of shared umbrellas, which created a kind of sheepishly amused camaraderie amonst the mourners. Unable to understand most of what was said over the appalling sound system, I tried to look at the scene in front of me dispassionately, in terms of shapes, colours, textures and movement. The different fabrics of coats and hats and scarves patterned with rain on the hillocks of people's heads and shoulders, the negative shapes of sky in the interstices of the umbrellas, the pinkish flossy edge of a woman's hair at the nape of her neck so teased and overworked and bullied by the hairdresser ( and I could almost certainly tell you which...) that it resembled acrylic fibre, the elderly man in front of us who from time to time pulled down the spoke of his umbrella to watch the trickle of water that ran down it, like a child playing in the bath.

I knew the woman who died, a little, for a longish time, liked her well enough. She was three years older than me. The sight of her parents, for seven of our years here the dearest, kindest, most welcoming neighbours we have ever had, without whose help and friendship I don't think we could have settled as well as we did, so laid waste, so broken, was the drill biting through the novocaine. I felt unreasonably enraged at her for breaking their hearts this way.

Josette was pleased to have a spare kleenex, Tom held her beige and brown umbrella over the two of us.


Old Pierre did it well. A small man of uncertain temper, but much loved, notably by his four beautiful granddaughters, he died last August, two days after celebrating his diamond wedding. He danced with his wife, his daughter, and the four grandaughters, but had to keep sitting down. " The motor" he said, tapping his chest, "is running down. Time was when I could dance all night and work in the field all day, never having slept."

He slept all the next day, a Sunday, while his family made holiday together. On the Monday eldest beautiful grandaughter took him to the doctor, who sent him express to hospital, but I don't think he lived long after that. It being summer and school holidays, his family were able to turn around and come back fairly easily, and there we were less than a week later back in the same church, same cast, different outfits and minus the accordion player. Everyone (except us, we somewhat disingenuously plead Protestantism in this event) showered the coffin with enough holy water to float it out of the church, and after the walk to the cemetery, we all repaired to the old village hall for coffee and hot chocolate and wine and cakes. Tear-stained, weary faces became flushed and animated with sugar and alcohol, and affectionate words and gestures were exchanged. Such was Pierre's good record with the church that he was accorded the special privilege of a Monsignor to officiate, as well as the rather more dubious honour of the Plemy church choir, of which he had been a member ( Tom's silver lining about yesterday's event was " At least we didn't have to suffer that lot, they only know two hymns and they sing them on every occasion". On reflection we thought it might only be two notes). The Monsignor was a handsome, solidly built, bass-voiced African, splendid in purple, and he really gave it some for the eulogy. " Yes, weep for Pierre. But envy him too, he has triumphed. He has kept his faith and now he is with God. Pierre is a happy, happy man!"
Perhaps, perhaps.


Zhoen said...

Stepping into the deep unknowable.

Jean said...

I don't quite know if it's appropriate to say what wonderful writing. But I don't just mean the style. As one of those buddhist types who believes, if in anything, in the ultimate power and desirability of 'just being there', this felt like you had both lent the power and sweetness of your being fully there (if you can write this afterwards, it's hard to believe you mentally absented yourself all that much) to the funeral and then extended it to everyone who reads your blog. A deeply good thing.

jzr said...

I agree with Jean on this. Sounds like you were truly in the moment and taking away valuable thoughts. Thanks for this. It is wonderful writing and thinking!!

Julie said...

Yes to the above. I was there with you, Lucy. But what a downer -- two funerals in as many weeks!

Lucy said...

Thanks for comments.
Yes, we knew that simply to turn up was very important, and it was noted and appreciated.
Julie - thanks, but Wednesday's was the only funeral this year, in fact. Pierre's was last year, and rare in that it was in the summer. People seem most fragile in the dying part of the year, as in the small hours of the morning.

Ramesh Gandhi said...

This is beautiful writing. Sorry that it was occasioned by such a sad event.

Lucy said...

Thank you, Nancy. I supppose it's OK to make writing capital of other people's pain... I didn't want to get to explicit about the details out of some sense of respect for privacy.

Rosie said...

I had to go out for a walk after reading this because I wanted to replay my thoughts in the forest. Lots of resonances for me, losing my parents in London while living here, an only child, and thinking about funeral services for my father (a jewish athiest) and my mother (a non practising catholic). We had humanist cremations, which helped me a little. Although I went to a Catholic convent, I grew up as a scientist! By which I think I mean I believe in scepticism, intellect and reason, and temper it with large doses of joyous contemplation of the infinite unknown. But I still needed a ritual...

Lucy said...

Thanks Rosie for such a thoughtful comment.
I suppose the C of E to some extent accepts that people are going to use them as and when in their own way, perhaps more than the RC church does. I think the warmest funeral services I've been to have been within the familiarity of a vaguely religious setting,and I have to say with kind of appropriately elegiac music etc, but where people have done their own thing a bit more. Sadly though, of course immediately bereaved people are not best equipped to organise such things. And here it also seems to me they bury people with indecent haste; the woman's poor young daughters trying to read and speak at this one was just harrowing, they probably just hadn't had enough time to collect thermselves at all.

leslee said...

Very nice post, Lucy, and very interesting. My mom passed away in September, but since she was cremated there was no need to rush with a service back here where most friends and family are. So we had the memorial service in November, after all. It was a Catholic Mass and odd for me since I don't go anymore (on the internet dating sites it's checked off as "spiritual not religious"; I had to watch others to remember how to take communion, since it was clear I couldn't abstain properly), but it somehow seemed the right thing to do all around. Fortunately, we had connections as my mom worked at a Catholic college and we enlisted the chaplain and chapel, and friends who are religious who performed the music and did the readings for us. The chaplain agreed that it would be too much for the immediate family to have to do a reading, even two months later. I think it was very helpful to have the ritual, and though I believed nothing of the words in the readings, I appreciated the spirit of it. And the reception afterwards was nice, people reminiscing and making us feel like we were part of a community after all. It does matter to show up, really and truly.