It’s that time of year again: the weekly publicité tells us that every supermarket and garden centre everywhere is stocked to the roof with chrysanthemums. Empty shops will open just to sell them by the pot. Markets will have stalls dedicated to them. It’s nearly All Saints, and on that day, November 1st – a national holiday – people everywhere will be placing these flowers on the graves of their lost ones.
Hallowe’en has become a new and not totally trusted event: it’s for the young. It's lost its original significance. All Saints is for the older generations. It used to be celebrated in England, in a sombre fashion, as an exclusively religious day. Here in France it belongs to everyone who has someone to remember; and failing that, it's a day off work.
One of the many things that perplexed us since coming to France is the lack of old graves, and indeed graveyards. Where are they all? In England, burials traditionally took place within the churchyard; historically, disposing of the bodies and souls of the dearly departed was the purlieu of the Church. You can walk amongst these tombs, in various stages of upkeep, in just about any village and town.
In the Poitou, this is rare. The cemeteries are detached, often on the edge of the village, with no religions building in sight, and on inspection, you will find nobody commemorated from before the late 1800s.
South of Poitiers there is a Protestant burial ground in a forest, dating from the 17th century. It had to be hidden away because the believers couldn’t, wouldn’t, be buried according to Catholic rites. They were outcasts in life and death by virtue of their religion. But that is one of the oldest sites of common people’s graves still in existence. There will always be the grand tombs in Cathedrals and city churches, but where were the ordinary people laid to rest? Where is the old hallowed ground?
What’s missing is the sense of time, of continuation. Earlier generations couldn’t afford engraved stones to mark their passage through history, as was the case in England too; but there aren’t any monuments to local lordlings or constables, either.
In Brittany there are churches with attached burial grounds, still in use. One of these, at a tiny village near here, has an ossuary. This is a small stone building with open sides, like a miniature market hall; and inside are jumbles of old bones.
The graves are occupied as long as there are people to pay for their upkeep. Once this lapses, a notice will be attached to the headstone, warning that if there is no contact from the relatives of the deceased within a certain time, the plot will be cleared and made available to someone else. It’s a pragmatic approach.
With the publicité for shellfish, and wine events, and chrysanthemums, that comes to the mailbox every week courtesy of La Poste, there will often be a leaflet advertising funerary monuments. Look at our range of stone! Look at our carving! Want your loved one’s name in Gothic script, picked out in gold? Easy terms available!
You can have your place in history for as long as there’s someone to remember and to care: which, when you think about it, is the simple truth.
Perhaps fame should be measured in chrysanthemums.