Last month I spent a week in Bourg-en-Bresse in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France. When I wasn’t dining out, walking around the Medieval part of town, or hitting on museum staff (see Traveling and “Never Thought”), I spent quite a bit of time in churches. One in particular, Our Lady of the Annunciation, was a mile from my hotel, so I would walk there everyday.
In the half dozen times I visited the church, I happened to attend three funeral Masses. The odd thing is that, even though I went at different times of the day, I still arrived at the beginning of each Mass. I don’t know how that happened, since Our Lady of the Annunciation serves as co-cathedral for the diocese and home for the bishop, so you would think they’d run funeral Masses the way the Swiss run trains. Instead, they seemed to be purely random.
My last funeral was for “Marguerite,” a woman who died in her eighties and had worked as a domestic servant all her life. According to her daughter, Marguerite never left Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, never spent much money, and never did much of anything except work, shop, and clean house. Her husband, mentioned only in passing, had died years earlier. She also had a son who wasn’t able to attend the funeral for some reason that I couldn’t quite make out. But, really, if it were anything short of being hospitalized, what excuse could he possibly have had? I immediately formed an opinion of the guy. I couldn’t help it.
The experience felt surreal, especially since everyone seemed more interested in chatting it up and making luncheon plans than remembering this poor woman on whose coffin sat a silver-framed picture of her in what must have been her earlier years and a small bouquet of daisies (Marguerite means daisy). It was almost as if her death had been an inconvenience and they were eager to move on with their lives. Yet, these were mostly elderly people, pensioners, with presumably not a lot going on. In fact, I saw some of them at my two other funerals. When you start recognizing people at funerals, you’ve entered Ruth Gordon territory.
Some disturbing things linger. To wit, the handful of coins that made up the collection. The absence of singing on the part of the assembly, which felt eerie in a cavernous church with vaulted ceilings. The request by the priest that only family members receive communion, which meant three people. I have no idea why he did that. Everyone else remained seated, which solved the dilemma of whether or not I should go up. I had been all set to take that long walk down the stone aisle.
The thing I found most disturbing, though, is that the daughter described her mother as loving because of all the things “she did for me.” In a seven-minute speech, she spent six recounting how she had benefitted from her mother’s generosity. I hear that a lot at funerals. People are grateful for what they’ve gotten over the years from their dearly departed. It’s as if they’re reading from a bill of lading. Maybe that’s harsh, maybe even wrong. But when the daughter announced that her mother’s greatest attribute was that she was “clean,” I nearly yelled out from the back of the church.
What the hell was the daughter talking about? Didn’t Marguerite laugh, cry, pray, sin? Didn’t she occupy space on the planet even if only in one little corner of France that she never got to explore? Didn’t she do more than scrub floors so that her family could survive? Didn’t she amount to something more deserving than a perfunctory funeral and a basket of coins? I know the answer, and I’ve never even met the woman.
I snuck out before Mass ended and walked the mile back to my hotel. I couldn’t stop thinking about Marguerite. What would they have said if she had been dirty?
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Image credits: feature Allée principale à l’intérieur de la co-cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, Bourg-en-Bresse, by Chabe01, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. For reading this holiday season, get your copy of The Gringo (2011), Laura Fedora (2014), and Nine Lives (2016) here. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”