Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) on 1st November is a big religious event in France. French people honour their dead relatives and tidy and deck their tombs. Even if the church at Teysseroles is in poor repair, the cemetery is still in use. Since our fundraising fête at the end of June, the team restoring it – which includes us – has not had much opportunity to work there. But it has been all hands to the pumps during the past fortnight to clear up the churchyard.
Toussaint was originally a celebration of all the saints, including those who had no special feast day of their own. The following day, All Souls’ Day, was for commemorating those who have yet to be purified in Purgatory and reach Heaven. Since only 1st November is a public holiday in France, people have come to honour both the saints and their dead on the same day.
Owing to the wetter than normal early autumn weather, the grass has shot up. Our main concern, therefore, has been to clear the path that leads to the main entrance and to tidy around the graves. At the same time, local families have been tending to their plots. They plant chrysanthemums in particular, which you see on sale in all the local markets and at funeral parlours. (We have three funeral parlours in our village of 1600 or so souls. What do they know that we don’t?).
Chrysanthemums are said to symbolise death but I have no idea why. Does anyone know? Whatever the reason, don’t ever buy French people a pot of chrysanths as a present.
Continuing the restoration work
Another good reason to get on with the work is that our appointed architect is visiting in mid-November, along with the architect from Bâtiments de France, who oversee historic monuments in France. We are hoping that this will result in a planned programme of work on the building itself so that we have tangible progress to show people at our fête next June.
At a meeting with the Maire last week, we learned that we have now amassed enough in the coffers through our own efforts to justify applying for grants and subsidies. This includes the Midi-Pyrénées region and the European Union. Assuming they grant us the dosh, it will be doled out in tranches to pay for each stage of the work. The small matter of the municipal elections next March (or the results) will not, we hope, set things back.
We have just about got to the end of what we can reasonably achieve as non-professional workers. Ten days ago, we hired a man with a digger, who relentlessly clenched his pipe between his teeth throughout proceedings, to carry out various works around the church.
The works included:
- Digging below one of the corners of the building to check that it is solid. It is. I dread to think what would have happened if it hadn’t been.
- Excavating a drainage ditch at the side of the church to stop damp seeping through the wall.
- Removing the stump of the smaller pine tree that we had cut down earlier this year. The larger stump was beyond his digger’s capacity.
- Neatening up various other parts of the churchyard.
It did look at bit like the Somme after he had finished but a spell of dry weather has sorted out the worst. In the process, he also managed to upset a couple of tombstones and knocked the cross off the top of another. But our president, Alain, a maçon, came to the rescue with masonry glue. We just hope no one leans against them on Friday.
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Just reading on the web that apparently chrysanthemums were/are an Eastern symbol of immortality, maybe this is something to do with it. They also survived frost and needed little care, which as well as emphasising the immortality was also practical. In Germany a legend apparently tells of a poor peasant couple entertaining a beggar at Xmas who turned out to be Christ and it is a tradition in Germany to buy two white chrysanthemums at Xmas to represent sheltering the Christ child. I expect it’s a mixture of all these things, but who knows. The association with death seems to be common across much of Europe. At least it’s nice to have living flowers in graveyards instead of those ghastly faded plastic ones the French go in for. French florists always seem horrendously expensive with little choice (outside of big cities) so it’s an easy mistake to make to buy chrysanthemums as a gift, as sometimes that is all they seem to sell that is affordable.
Thank you for the interesting information. I find it fascinating the way these customs cross cultures – and continents. No doubt the chrysanthemums are an ancient symbol that has little to do with Christianity! Unfortunately, we also have to tolerate the plastic flowers but, now that the churchyard is being taken care of again, people are preferring to plant real flowers.
Keeping these lovely old churches in reasonable nick is so important. We have recently had an extension to the graveyard – I’m amazed the work ever got done, the amount of procrastination that went on at the Conseil meetings. Anyway, it’s just as well as most of the residents in our tiny commune (42 souls) are over seventy. Good luck getting your grants.
The churchyard certainly looks a lot better than it did, although there’s some way to go. It was in a state of neglect before we started the work, although people were still (and are still) being buried there. I hope the grants will be forthcoming. It would be a shame to stop now.
What a pretty place; so much nicer than the scary marble cemeteries that I see around where we have the FR house. Chrysanthemums (which I love) are treated the same way here in Tuscany and my first big mistake was to bring a large and beautiful bunch to my farming neighbours when I went to dinner. I was amazed when Aurora hastily crossed herself and marched them off and away to where they would never be seen again. It’s good to know the French feel the same way, just so I won’t make the same mistake there!
Interesting that chrysanthemums have the same connotations in Italy. I have tried to find out why these particular flowers are associated with death but have drawn a blank so far.
Alas, there are one or two marble and polished granite monstrosities in our churchyard. I just chose not to photograph them! The Batiments de France architect threw up his hands in horror when he saw them and said we weren’t to allow any more.
Well thank goodness the Batiments de France don’t like them:) They are really the most depressing sight, not that Italian cemetries are any better … something to do with being Catholic maybe, but it does make me very nostalgic for beautiful British country graveyards with sheep nibbled grass.
We will have to live with the ones that are there – unfortunately, one of the monstrosities is our association president’s family tomb! However, the B de F architect says they must in future be made of the local stone and blend in with the style of the church and cemetery. Much nicer.
Good luck securing your grants! Looks like work is progressing.
We are keeping fingers crossed. With la crise, it’s by no means certain we will get the money and no doubt there are plenty of competing priorities. But things are starting to move.