A DAMP January morning, mild but overcast, exactly suitable for a funeral. The marin's blowing, the wind that rolls inland from the Mediterranean bearing gifts of low pressure and blankets of heavy grey cloud that blot out the m
A DAMP January morning, mild but overcast, exactly suitable for a funeral. The marin's blowing, the wind that rolls inland from the Mediterranean bearing gifts of low pressure and blankets of heavy grey cloud that blot out the mountains behind us. We assemble with about fifty other villagers in front of the mairie. The hearse has already arrived, a handsome dark green funeral car attended by four smartly-dressed undertakers. Josephine and I nod to each other in approval: so often les croque-morts, undertakers, are notable for a scruffiness that offends our Northern susceptibilities.
The village funeral vehicle is in attendance, because our village isn't like others: the thoroughfares leading up to the church are either ancient vaulted stairways or donkey-wide streets, far too narrow to take anything but the slimmest of vehicles. In former times, maybe, the coffin was carried up to the church on stalwart shoulders, but now, as I look round the mourners, it seems to me that most are barely capable of carrying themselves up there, let alone an ex-member of their number. To overcome this problem the village authorities bought a very narrow tractor, one designed for harrowing between rows of vines, and acquired from somewhere an equally narrow trailer, flat-bedded and with a simple home-made catafalque superstructure. The coffin is slid from the hearse on to the flat-bed, one of the municipal employees (in fact our neighbour Jean) starts up the tractor and the cortège falls in behind. We follow the lurching catafalque beneath arches, across little bridges and over the twisting cobbles of the rue Mégeane up to the church. I'm reminded of a famous passage in Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette (later made into a wonderful Claude Berri film), in which a minor character called Pique-Bouffigue dies and is laid in his coffin with his favourite hunting piece beside him, a loaded express rifle with a hair-trigger filed down to ultra-sensitivity which the least bump might discharge. At his funeral cortège the files of mourners part to one side or the other, leaving a clear passage down the middle, just in case . . .
. . . nothing like that here, though. The deceased is a man who has appeared once or twice in this column under the pseudonym of Moïse. Latterly Moïse has been the merest shadow of his former self, a fine man laid low in mind and body by a failed operation. His last years have crept past in increasing enfeeblement and disability, and among the many expressions of sympathy we overhear several people saying une délivrance, a term maybe best translated by that useful Victorian expression, a merciful release.
The funeral Mass passes with a quiet dignity, and towards the end the priest circles the flower-laden coffin swinging a barely-lit censer, trying to disperse the scented smoke around the remains. But there's hardly any smoke (the damp weather maybe discourages the incense from smouldering), so the priest hands the censer back to an aged attendant and instead sprinkles the coffin with water shaken from an olive branch, reminding us that at his baptism in 1931 Moïse was ritually washed. Now, at his passing, it's fitting that all that was impure in his life should be similarly washed away.
After the Mass Jean is at the church door with the tractor and trailer, and the mourners assemble to form a procession all the way down again towards the village cemetery. Josephine asks me what the ritual with the incense is supposed to signify. Neither of us is Catholic, and I'm not certain, but at another funeral last years the priest likened the upward rise of the smoke to the ascent of the deceased's soul to realms above. If no smoke could be coaxed from the censer this little ceremony fell a bit flat. Providentially, at this moment Jean starts the tractor up, wellying the accelerator and sending clouds of exhaust smoke up into the air. A woman in front of us, deprived for the entire hour the Mass lasts, lights up a cigarette, and wisps of blue-grey tobacco smoke drift upwards. I think Moïse's soul will have made it without any difficulty.
* * *
DOWN TO the mairie - by invitation, and we don't quite know what to make of this: we've always understood it was an open, public occasion - on the first Sunday in January to receive the maire's New Year greetings. This is a top-down event in France: the first newscasts of the year are dominated by the President's New Year greetings to various groups of the great and good, the armed forces, the press, the diplomatic corps, the justiciary, senators and parliamentarians and all, and I suppose our annual village ear-bending is just a very localised version of this.
On arrival we go the rounds shaking hands and giving la bise (the kiss on both cheeks) as appropriate and wishing everyone bonne année (Happy new year, but you knew that already, didn't you?) and meilleurs voeux (best wishes) and I personally abstain from adding surtout pour la santé, c'est primordial (especially for good health, that's the most important) not because I wish anyone the opposite but because everybody says it so often that it becomes totally meaningless. We mingle with the maire's guests, maires from neighbouring communes, the local député, police chief, head of the fire brigade and local councillors. A man in a beige camel jacket with the ribbon of an order in his lapel greets us so warmly that I feel bad about not knowing who he is. When we ask, nobody else does either. An interloper?
The maire is about to start and we gravitate to the back with one or two other Brits. We know our place. I expect mayors' speeches are the same all over the world: to add a little zest to his remarks I decide to count the number of times he says 'également' (similarly), pronounced 'E-gall-e-mang' in Midi fashion, and compare my total with Josephine and the other Brits, if they can be bothered to count too. I get to 41, and the maire's in full flow about what a great team the local council is and également what a great privilege it is to lead them. Suddenly there's a disturbance behind us: the deputy maire, a pleasant and able woman with no less than her fair share of Gallic personal independence, emerges from a back room where she's been preparing a modest buffet for the guests and starts her own New Year greetings, passing down the line bonne année-ing and meilleurs voeux-ing. When it comes to my turn for the deputy-mayoral bise I lose count of the égalements.
Purée! as a builder of ours (Christian Cabrol, whom devotees of this column may remember) used to say when vexed, a euphemism for something much stronger. Now I'll have to wait until 2008. But keep that 41 in mind; there may be some advance next year.