Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Final resting place...ou pas?

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Capital on M6.  I generally enjoy this show and it’s a welcome change from all of the crime shows that generally seem to be the bulk of my options on French TV.  Each episode of Capital focuses on a different topic from a financial/economic point of view.  This particular episode discussed the financial side of death…everything from funeral costs, budget funeral companies, the prices associated with different options for death and burial and even the costs associated with the death of a pet.

While I’m not generally that much of a doom and gloom person, I did find the show to be quite interesting (especially when they talked about an American woman spending $150,000 to have her dog cloned when she found out he was dying of cancer!).  But what really shocked and surprised me the most was discovering the hidden (or perhaps not-so-hidden) truth behind your supposedly “final resting place” in France.  Imagine my shock and horror when I came to discover that your final resting place may not actually be your final resting place!

Apparently, there is an entire second-hand market for funerals here in France.  When they first mentioned delving deeper into the second-hand market to lower your funerary costs, right before a commercial break, my mind was spinning trying to understand what exactly could be reused and sold on the second-hand market to make a funeral cheaper.  When the show came back on I was shocked to find out that they were actually talking about your plot in the cemetery.  I had absolutely no idea that this was possible.  From my understanding, in the US, you purchase a cemetery plot, you are buried there, and you stay there.  At least for the foreseeable future.  I’ve never heard of anyone being removed from their plot in the US before (without of course court orders or the family’s permission).  I mean sure, I’ve heard of very old cemeteries being lost or forgotten (especially Native American cemeteries) and then rediscovered when they attempt to construct something in that particular location.  But someone who was recently buried (say in the last 50 years or so) is going to stay in their plot.  In my lifetime, I don’t expect to ever see them removed.

Here in France, however, that is apparently not the case.  As I so unexpectedly learned while watching Capital, apparently in France it is very common to “rent” your concession.  Meaning that someone has to continue to pay the “rent” on your plot otherwise you risk eviction!  How often your plot has to be renewed seems to depend on the city and the kind of plot you choose, though in some cities, “perpetual” plots are also available.  I say “perpetual” because even paying for a “perpetual” plot apparently (as I discovered after hours of google research) does not guarantee that this will be your final resting place forever.  There are conditions otherwise you still risk eviction.

I was shocked.  I literally think my jaw dropped to the floor.  Poor Lionel just looked at me like I was crazy and then acted like it was perfectly normal to evict a body for failure to pay “rent”.  But I just couldn’t leave it alone.  Questions and what-if scenarios were flying through my mind.  What happens to the person once they have been evicted?  What if they have no family left to pay the rent?  What if the surviving family members are unaware of the fact that the rent has come due?  What if the family members forgot to update their address or moved out of the country?  How is this even possible?

Since Lionel seemed to be unable (or perhaps unwilling after my millionth what-if scenario) to answer all of my questions, I took to google to do some research of my own.  And after hours of investigating I realized that it is nearly impossible to find out what happens to the people who are evicted from their graves.  I stumbled across one woman’s blog, the only place where I found anything written on the issue, and she claimed that there were three possibilities depending on the city.  The evicted person is either 1.) reburied in a common plot, 2.) their bones are place in a community ossuary or 3.) they are cremated and their ashes are sprinkled in the jardin des souvenirs.

My research also left me far more horrified than I already was.  Imagine my surprise to find out that there are pompes funèbres forums out there to assist people with their questions.  As I was scrolling through the forums, hoping to find some answers, I was literally floored when I discovered how many people in France had “inherited” their family’s concession and were wanting to know if they could sell it (apparently this is not a possibility…if there are occupants inside you can’t just sell the plot, you have to wait for the rent to come due and then fail to pay at which point the city reclaims the plot, pays you nothing, and your family members are evicted), in an attempt to make some cash!  

Anyway, I digress, back to the evictions for failure to pay rent issue.  So, you might be wondering what happens to the plot once the city has decided to reclaim it and has evicted the occupants.  This is where the second-hand market comes in.  On Capital they showed two fonctionnaires with the city of Lyon, I believe, appraising a concession that had recently become available again following the eviction of the occupants.  They eventually came to the second-hand price of 200 euros for the used monument, plus of course “rental” costs with the city.  In determining that price they considered the type of stone used to build the monument, the size of the monument and the “extras” that came with it, i.e. plaques, vases for flowers, etc.  The city then sanded the names of the previous occupants off the monument and put it up for sale.  I couldn’t even believe it.  I just can’t imagine something like this being seen as acceptable in the US.  My hours of googling also led me to discover that this is not just a French thing.  Apparently with the economic crisis in Spain, more and more people are being evicted from their graves as their families can no longer afford to pay the rent!

Then a light bulb went off in my head.  About a month and a half ago Lionel’s aunt and uncle were visiting from Bretagne and while they were here we went to the cemetery to visit Lionel’s grandparents’ grave.  While we were walking through the cemetery I noticed a tomb with a little sign next to it stating that the concession needed to be renewed.  At the time I remember finding that to be extremely strange and I couldn’t figure out what on earth would need to be renewed.  I think I finally settled it in my own mind as being an empty plot that someone had purchased in preparation for their eventual death and they needed to confirm that they still intended to use the plot.  But now, thanks to Capital, I know that it was in fact the grave of someone who risks eviction if their family doesn’t respond to the letters from the city or visit the grave to see the sign and pay the rent.  Horrible!

After watching this episode of Capital I discussed the topic with a few American friends.  They were just as shocked and horrified as I was to learn that in France your final resting place is not necessarily your final resting place.  And here I am, a few weeks later, posting about it because it still bothers me.  So what do you think?  Have you ever heard of this before or am I just out of the loop?  Maybe I’m just crazy to be so disturbed by this?  But one thing’s for sure, as I told Lionel when the show ended, now that I know I could risk eviction I definitely don’t want to be buried in France!  !  I mean, I get it, we will eventually run out of space for all the dead people, but really!?  There isn’t any other solution?  Nothing better than potentially evicting a body while their close family is still alive? 

Oh, and I apologize for the extremely dark and morbid post, but I really just can’t get over this.  In fact, writing this post has inspired me to start googling the subject all over again.  And in my additional research this evening, after writing this but before posting it, I stumbled across this interesting article written on the subject in 2006.

8 comments:

  1. All the more reason to get cremated, I guess. It's a shame you can't spread ashes anywhere you want, though. I guess the good news is that we'll be dead, so we won't know what's happening to us!

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    1. I agree, cremation is sounding more and more like the way to go!

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  2. Yes, I've heard about this, but I didn't know about the "budget options". I heard that the regular concessions are rented out for 99 years or something like that. My husband told me that the deceased are then moved to another location. I wonder how long the "budget plots" are rented out for?

    I also heard that you can't keep an urn with ashes in your house in France due to hygiene reasons. You have to pay to keep the ashes of your loved one in the cemetary or a place made especially for the safekeeping of urns. I was really surprised by that one. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't we allowed to keep uns at home in North America?

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    1. From what I saw, the length of time you can rent a concession depends on the city. It looks like most big cities in France offer 15 year and 30 year options and then some offer longer options and perpetual concessions.

      The "budget options" seem to be one-stop discounted funeral shops, kinda like the Ryanair or Easyjet of the funerary industry. There are apparently a few chains that offer these budget options all around France now.

      I'm pretty sure you can keep an urn at home in North America. At least, that has always been my impression though I don't think I know anyone who has ever actually done so. I didn't know that wasn't an option in France.

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  3. I did a guided visit of the main cemetery in Toulouse a couple years ago, and I learned about the concession. From what I remember, if you buy a "concession à pérpétuité" they will leave the tomb as long as it's kept up, the key concept being "as long as it's kept up." This is one of the main reasons visiting tombs on Nov 1st is so important. Families check if the tombstone is crumbling, add flowers, take off moss, etc etc. I think there are associations that try to do upkeep for old plots that aren't maintained anymore. Of course after 50 years (or 80 say) there's rarely anyone still around who can take care of the tomb. But the question of space is huge in France. If few or no graves had ever been re-purposed, there would be cemeteries all over the place.

    For my in-laws, they keep a family tomb from being repossessed by adding ashes to the same monument. The original tomb was purchased around 1890 by a great (great?) grandfather, and my MIL's mother and father's ashes were added in the 60's and 90's when they died.

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    1. I completely understand the idea of space, but I just feel like there must be another solution. Something better than potentially repossessing a person's tomb while people who actually knew that person in life are still alive.

      From the research I was doing it seems that tombs can be repossessed if they aren't kept up and in some cities also if there are not enough burials in family tomb. That just seems horrible to me...repossessing a family's tomb because they were lucky enough not to have any deaths over a certain period of time. Of course, these were just terms of the contract...I have no idea if that particular clause is enacted often or not.

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  4. That's funny, I wrote a very similar post about seven years ago after watching a Capital special - I wonder if it was the same one?? I remember being so shocked at the time. But now I am more pragmatic about it like Laura - France is an old country and would be absolutely covered in cemetaries!

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    1. Hmmm...it could have been the same one! Or perhaps the original reportage was updated (as I feel like the story about cloning your pet was a much more recent option).

      Regardless, I definitely understand the space issues, but like I mentioned in my reply above, I feel like there still must be a better solution than possibly evicting someone from their grave while the people who knew them in life are still around. And I just feel like there are too many potential what-if scenarios. It seems to me like they should at least have longer rental terms to avoid sticky situations. And they could perhaps encourage cremation as an urn takes up a lot less space than a coffin. Or dig tombs deeper to fit more people. I don't know, I'm not an expert of cemetery logistics but I feel like there must be some happy middle ground.

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