Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another Rite of Passage

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

In a life lived, there are rites of passage. Birth, Marriage, and Death. We joyously accept and applaud the former two, and rarely escape the latter. I am not an anthropologist, and my examples are from personal experiences. Funeral rites, saying goodbye to the dead, sending our loved ones on their voyage as they depart this world, every culture, every people, has its ways of handling this meeting of the life force as they depart the physical body.

In the last few years I attended too many funerals and/or memorial services, both in the US and in France. A close cousin from cancer and my father from Parkinson's on the continent to the west, and in France, a nephew of Erick's from a heart attack, a delightful old uncle from old age (98), a much-loved potter out of the blue with a heart attack, and more recently, a colleague and collaborator from Châteauneuf-du-Pape after a long battle with cancer. As Leo, who accompanied me (and it was important to me that he do so) to three of the above, rightly said. Too many.

I am writing from experience and sentiment, curiosity and wonder. I was startled, after the memorial services of my American family to then participate in the ceremonies in France. In the former we chose to bring the individual we so sorely missed back into the room with us through poetry, personal reminiscences, music and song; yet, there was no casket sharing the space, and we did not go to a cemetery afterwards. We did however, gather together for a reception. We extended our time together, the service serving as a family reunion. In my family, spread out as we are, many of us see each other only at weddings or funerals.

In France the ceremonies were of two sorts. In two, religious rites and tradition dominated. The family attended, the priest spoke, we prayed, lit candles, and then followed the casket to the cemetery, no personal words or sentiments were expressed. The patriarchal church tradition orchestrated the day. For the others, to whom religion no longer had a place in their lives, the words were few, but the rites of burying the heavy and imposing casket in a granite tomb still of great importance.

A French friend once expressed her shock to me that John Kennedy Junior and his wife were cremated and their ashes spread at sea. How could they not bury them beside his parents? she exclaimed.

The ceremonies I've attended surprised me in their lack of personal words, as well as by the emphasis on the solid and lasting tomb. From a point of ignorance, and otherness, I observe and wonder.

I'm trying to come to terms with what seems most important to each culture. Soon after my arrival in Provence, I buried my father in law who'd lived the last year of his life with us. I have pictures of him with baby Leo throughout my house, I have memories of this dear man who so befriended me. I welcomed him to my home and cared for him as he ailed. Then, with barely two cents to our name, Erick and I buried him as we were able, with little ceremony in a little plot that we purchased for 30 years. We did gather at the site of his burial, speak a few sincere words, sprinkle bay leaves atop before departing. The burial was written up in the local paper and family and friends came out to the cemetery to bear witness with us of this event. However, we didn't at the time have the funds to build a proper granite or poured cement tomb, and since then, other necessities have definitely taken priority. A proper tomb has not been built above his burial mound.

Have I betrayed this dear father in law in not caring for his grave? I think his sister and niece believe this. Caring for the tomb, cleaning it, putting flowers on it, sweeping it, visiting it at least every All Saints' Day are important traditions to this part of the world. I've been busy with my babies and businesses. I did not adopt this tradition. But nor was I encouraged to do so by my husband. I cared for my father in law during his life, loved him and learned from him, included him in our little family. But no, I have not tended his grave. I have to believe that if it had been important to Erick, I would have done so.

The cemeteries around Arles are fascinating to me. All the stones, the granite, the poured cement. Minimal plants outside of a few ornamental trees. Plaques dedicated to the dead placed upon the tomb: "to papa, from his children;" "To Emile from his pétanque club;" "To Mireille from her loving husband." There are photos under glass, images of a man dancing the Farandole. Mementos and messages writ in stone. And in the cemetery on the far side of the Rhône, signs directing you to the grave of Jeanne Calment, the Arlesienne doyenne who died a decade ago at the age of 122, at that time, the oldest living person in the world whose birth had been officially registered.

In the old world, space is at a premium. The American tradition of each person having his plot of land with a small (or large) headstone is impractical. For families with means, a large and deep granite topped tomb is constructed. It is purchased for the years to come. Into this vault, you can lay up to 4-5-6 coffins. With time, the coffins below decompose, and you can add others above. At the time of his death, my father in law had been immediately preceded by a brother and a sister in law. There was no room for yet another new casket in that particular family tomb. Hence the need to find another spot for Papi. The bureaucratic and cultural maze that Erick and I traversed, baby Leo in arms, to bury Papi stays with me. It was all quite surreal, and I suppose I am still reeling from my incomprehension and unease.

Both my parents purchased small plots beside their parents ahead of time. My father's ashes are in Louisville, KY. My mother has let it be known that she wishes to be in the small cemetery beside our summer home in Michigan. It does matter where we end up. And yet, being so dispersed as a family, I suppose for myself, the place of burial has never held much importance. It is the memories of our loved ones, photos, stories, letters and more that I hold dear.

I bounced this strange idea I had of writing about my limited experiences in this domain with JP. He said to me, in what concerns the ceremonies, "few feel creative at such a time of pain," and "it would be unseemly and poorly viewed to be original." But he also corrected me and underlined my limited experience. When his father died, they decided upon a very personal service, without a pastor or priest, and with words prepared and spoken by the eldest son. They then played Fauré's Requiem as their father had requested, bringing this man back into their midst.

No comments: