Thoughts on a French funeral
Somebody who works alongside us at Tester & Jones Funeral Services attended a funeral in France recently – which actually took place in Crowborough’s twin town of Montargis. Here she gives her thoughts about some of the aspects which were different from funerals in the UK.
I have never attended a funeral overseas before, so wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. However, being in France, I imagined there would be similarities to how we approach funerals in the UK. To start with, I had the question of what to wear – which was particularly tricky as I was already in France on holiday when I heard of the unexpected death of a friend. I had brought some fairly smart black boots with me, but otherwise my case was mostly jeans and brightly-coloured tops and dresses – none of which felt appropriate.
While buying bread and cheese at a local market, I came upon a stall selling clothes and the gentleman had a few black dresses, one of which I bought, along with a black scarf from another stall. It felt appropriate to dress in this way, as I wasn’t entirely sure of the dress code. In the event, there were quite a few people wearing black in the church but many folk had just come in ‘normal’ clothes.
The day before the funeral, there was an open invitation to visit our friend at the funeral home. In the UK, visiting a loved one is usually something that close family and friends might do, although I appreciate that this is different in other countries, such as Ireland for example.
On the day of the funeral, the service was in the town’s largest church. We arrived around 20 minutes early, as one would for a funeral service in a church in the UK and took our seats, along with a small number of other people. However, we realised afterwards that everyone else was outside waiting for the coffin to arrive which, of course, is what would happen when attending a service at a crematorium.
There were a lot of people at the service and it did feel that many people from the town had come along, including neighbours, friends and colleagues.
What did strike me was the more casual approach to timings on the day. I am used to the UK when services begin exactly when they are expected to. The service in France was scheduled to start at 10.00am but the coffin didn’t enter the church until around 10.20am. Likewise, there was a service at the local crematorium afterwards, which was scheduled for midday. We already realised that we couldn’t get from the centre of Montargis to the crematorium by 12.00pm and, as it was, the service was delayed by around half an hour anyway.
There were so many flowers - most of which had been delivered to the funeral home during the previous few days and carried to the front of the church by the funeral directors before the funeral began. Apart from a couple of more formal displays from close family, the majority of these were beautiful pot plants.
Also brought to the front of the church were some plaques from various family members and friends. The previous day, I had walked round a local cemetery and the majority of the graves included a few of these, which stood up like photo frames. In addition to being from family members, they were typically from friends and neighbours, as well as work colleagues and associations. Some of the graves were covered in them. I also noticed that a couple of the freshly-dug graves in this cemetery were covered in pot plants from a recent funeral.
The church service itself was, as one would expect, in French but full of emotion. There were a number of eulogies – including from our friend’s spouse and close family members and from a local organisation they’d been a member of for many years. At the end of the service, we were invited to one-by-one approach the coffin at the front of the church and pause for a few moments.
While a priest had led the church service, the service at the crematorium was led by the funeral director and it was less formal in structure. The crematorium was a very modern building and it reminded me a little of the Wealden Crematorium. I believe that cremations are less common in France but there are more of them than there used to be.
Having Googled it, statistics from the Cremation Society from 2019, reveal that 78.10% of funerals in the UK are cremations, compared with 36.79% in France. In more traditionally Catholic countries, there are fewer cremations – 22.69% in Ireland and 23.90% in Italy.
When sat down in the crematorium, we watched a slide show of photos of our friend, which was accompanied by music. Then the funeral director invited people to say a few words – which was incredibly emotional. There were so many tears and although the service was in French, one could feel the grief in the room. Again, we all approached the coffin individually to pay our respects, after which the close family stood around holding candles and saying their final farewells. Then the wall rolled open and the coffin was pushed into another room.
I think my overriding impression was that while a lot of the day felt similar to funerals I had been to before in the UK, it felt that people were leaning into their grief and they felt safe to express it, which I don’t always feel happens in the UK.