At about 9:30 Saturday morning I drove down to the outdoor market on the main square in Saint-Aignan to get some asparagus, strawberries, and mushrooms. One of my purposes was just to drive the Peugeot to see if I could tell any difference in the feel of the braking after the work that was done on the car during the week. I couldn't, but that's fine. I know the maintenance was done and that feels good.
As I turned onto our little road to come back up the hill to the house after my shopping, I encountered two cars coming the other way. In one were our neighbors M and B, and in the other was our neighbor the village mayor's husband, J-M. They were headed to the cemetery for neighbor A's burial, I assumed. I came home and dropped off the produce. I went back out immediately and drove down to the cemetery in the village center, hoping that was the right place and wondering if the burial might be taking place in the cemetery in Saint-Aignan.
When I got there, I saw that I was in the right place. M and B's car was parked in the lot across from the cemetery gate, and through the gate I could see them walking around among the graves and tombs. We were all a little early for the ceremony. I went and met them, and then the three of us walked up the steep hill to the newer section of the cemetery. The old cemetery is full.
At the gate up the hill, about 10 people were waiting around, including J-M. The weather was pleasant enough, and we joined them. I looked around and saw Madame la Maire trudging up the hill, wearing her ceremonial bleu-blanc-rouge ribbon and panting a bit because of the steep climb. She immediately greeted each attendee, including us, as the crowd gradually grew to 20 or so.
We must have waited 20 minutes in all. I had wondered how many people A (the deceased) and her husband D really knew in the village or the Saint-Aignan area, since they never really lived here full time. They've never had a lot of visitors other than their daughter and her kids. It seemed to me that 20 was a pretty good turnout. The village grave-digger arrived in his truck, and we all stood aside as he drove the vehicle into the cemetery and parked in the back to wait.
Then the hearse arrived, followed by 15 or 20 cars! That brought the number of attendees to 50 or 60. I asked M if A and D had family in the area, and she said yes, they had relatives who lived around some town or village not too far away, between here and Paris. She couldn't remember where exactly. D was there of course, leaning on his cane, his bushy graying hair slightly disheveled. So were his daughter and granddaughter. The grandson was nowhere to be seen, and M told me the boy, maybe 12 years old, had declined to participate in the funeral and had withdrawn into his own private world. She said she was worried that he was going to have a hard time coming to terms with his grandmother's death.
A and D's daughter came and greeted all of us who were waiting by the cemetery gate, giving us all the customary bises (kisses on the cheeks). She asked a woman standing behind me if she knew her, and the woman said no, I'm here as a friend of this woman that you do know. Okay. Then the daughter looked at me, slightly confused, and started to ask if she knew me. I hadn't really seen her in several years, so I told her I was a neighbor. That jogged her memory. She said oh of course, sorry, I'm not really on top of things today. C'est compréhensible, I told her.
The hearse drove into the cemetery and the funeral director told us all to follow on foot. It was a short walk to the center of the graveyard. As we walked up, four pall-bearers were taking A's coffin out of the hearse and setting it on sawhorses out in the open. They draped a kind of skirt of heavy gray material around the sawhorses and placed 8 or 10 big pots of flowering plants on and around the coffin. The funeral director said a word or two, introducing the village mayor, who was officiating.
Our neighbor the mayor gave a short talk in the name of the village council and in her own name, personally, as A's longtime neighbor. She told us that A was 68 years old and was survived by her husband, her daughter and son-in-law, and her two grandchildren, all of whom live in a town about 10 miles north of Saint-Aignan. A had spent most of her life in the Paris region, and had worked for many years as an administrative secretary in the offices of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.
I knew about that, and I had often thought of A maybe working there back in the mid-70s when I lived in the western Paris suburb of Asnières and worked in the Latin Quarter. I would take the train in to the Gare Saint-Lazare, near the big departments stores, every morning, and then back out to the suburbs every evening after work. I would often stop at the big Monoprix supermarket in the Galeries Lafayette building and pick up something for my supper (my apartment back then didn't have a refrigerator, so I had to shop every day.) When I learned of A's employment history a few years ago, and they said that they lived just a few miles further out from Asnières, I wondered if she might have been on those same trains to and from the suburbs with me and the rest of the mass of daily commuters all those years ago. Who knows?
The mayor said A was an avid gardener (that was obvious from the beautiful flower beds in her front yard) and cook (Walt and I had been invited to her house for drinks and food a couple of times). She did embroidery. She loved her family and doted on her grandchildren. I knew that too, because when the grandchildren would come to spend the afternoon A would walk with them up and down the road and out into the vineyard, the kids sometimes walking and sometimes on tricycles and, later, bicycles.
We all stood in a half-circle around the coffin — all except D, with his cane, for whom the funeral director provided a black metal folding chair. A's daughter walked up to the casket and caressed it as she shed some tears and talked to her mother inside. D sat rather stoically and observed. The funeral director asked us to line up and pay our last respects, one at a time, at the foot of the coffin. The pall-bearers went through the assembly with baskets of rose petals, giving each of us a little handful to drop in a basket set on the foot of the coffin as we paid our respects.
Some people crossed themselves, others touched the casket and said a few words to A or to themselves, bidding her farewell. It's interesting to find yourself in a crowd of people like that, not knowing more than 5 or 6 out of the 50 or 60 in attendance, and to look at them sort of from afar. Many of them were dressed in their Sunday best, and others were in what looked like their everyday clothes. These are country people and some of the faces looked distinctly rural or almost medieval. Or 19th-century, anyway — farmers, clerks, tradespeople, I imagined — out of an ancient painting.
Once all the flower petals had been gathered in that single basket, the funeral director said a word or two about the reality of death as the end of all our lives, thanked the mayor, and directed the pall-bearers to carry the casket to a nearby grave that had been dug. They lowered the casket into the ground and people filed by to again pay their last respects. All the rose petals that we had dropped into that basket were sprinkled into the grave. I stood off to one side, not being a really close friend and not a relative. The mayor our neighbor did the same, and after a minute she came over to me and we talked for a minute or two. She said she had been taken by surprise when her voice broke with emotion in the middle of her talk. I told her that she had done a very good job, in my opinion.
Then our other neighbors M (about 80 years old) and B (85) came over and said they were ready to go home. I said I'd walk back down the hill with them — we'd left our cars down there. M said she wondered what would become of D without his wife. She did everything at their house, including the gardening and cooking. He has mobility issues and can't do much gardening any more, but he still drives. She said that D has decided to sell the apartment up in the Paris area and move down here to live full time. His health is not good, overall, so... well, as it is for us all, it's just a matter of time.