Frenchitude Lesson #54: Visit a Grave

In the name of all things Halloweenish and spooky (but let me just say, not as spooky as the H1N1 flu that has made itself at home chez Germain this week ) today’s Frenchitude will be about visiting graves.

All of our friends and family in France are currently off for the annual “Toussaint” (All Saint’s) vacation. Incorporated into this vacation is All Soul’s Day on November 1st, when it is traditional to go to the graveyard and leave flowers on the graves of your departed family members.

I have been reminded since returning to Canada that death and mortality are not exactly favorite topics here in the land of the fit and health conscious, and even in France I have observed over the past few years that the All Soul’s tradition has a serious demographic problem. The visitors to the graveyards tend to be from the older generations, and younger French people don’t seem to feel the need to leave flowers at the graves of their dearly departed.

I, however, am a fan for bringing back the All Soul’s tradition. First of all, I firmly believe that things like death become scarier when they are avoided and not talked about.

The whole visiting of the graves thing helps with this. One of my girls’ favorite places in Villers-la-Faye was the village graveyard, where they would leap and run about, tracing back their ancestors to their great-great-great grandparents. Graveyards can teach us a lot about ourselves and where we come from.

My girls have been brought up with stories of their Pépé Georges (Franck’s maternal grandfather) who died when Franck was ten. They knew he loved nature, so on the way up to the cemetery they would always find a special twig or pine cone and leave it on his grave. Visiting Pépé Georges in this way made the girls feel like they really knew him.

But even if they don’t contain any of your ancestors, graveyards are fascinating places.

In Villers-la-Faye, for example, the cemetery boasts a few stone coffins dating back to druid times, scattered around the 11th Century Roman built chapel on top of the Mont-Saint-Victor. It’s like an outdoor museum.

When in Italy we visited a lot of cemeteries. Italians have the whole thing figured out. Not only do the huge majority of Italian graves bear a photo of the deceased plus a little (or not so little) synopsis of their lives, but they also have little lights that light up at night making the graveyard a lively, living, social place. Even if no-one there is related to you, it is still fascinating to read how people lived, and how they died.

I dare hope that our time spent in European graveyards over the past five years has lessened my girls’ fear of death a little bit. They also took part in the three graveside services for their three French great-grandparents who passed away during the past five years.

The most memorable burial as far as my girls are concerned was the last one – the one for their beloved Mémé Germaine who died only five days before Clémentine was born. Franck and the girls had bought white roses to put on Mémé’s coffin, because Mémé had always loved the tear-jerker of a song “Les Roses Blanches” by Berthe Sylva .

Struck by graveside inspiration, Franck and the girls decided as Meme’s coffin was being lowered into the vault that each person present should take one of the white roses and throw it into her grave.

The girls still talk about the white roses that are now sealed for eternity with Mémé and they feel that she would have really liked that elegant and personal touch.

And I know already that Mémé’s grave will be one of the first spots they will want to visit when we return to Villers-la-Faye next summer.