Make sense of... Burial and cremation
Giving thought to what we want to happen to our body after death can be helpful for those left behind as it removes the stress of them having to decide. It is also good to become familiar with what you need to do on the death of a relative
While it is not something most of us like to dwell on, working out whether we wish to be buried or cremated on death can be a comfort for our family as it removes the stress of them having to decide. This can be especially so for expats who may not have close family living nearby.
Burial is the more traditional option in France but cremation is increasingly common (the Catholic Church used not to allow it but removed the ban in 1963).
To remove uncertainty it is preferable to record your wishes, for example, in your will and to let close family know.
It can be a good option for elderly expats living in relative isolation to take out a funeral plan – as offered by banks, insurers or funeral firms – so that funeral funding and organisation is automatically in place. This can be helpful for family living abroad who may struggle with speaking French and understanding procedures. If your preference is for burial, it is advisable to reserve a plot.
Following a death in France
One of the first things to do after a death – apart from registering it at the mairie – is to contact a firm of funeral directors (pompes funèbres) and instruct them of what is required. If the deceased left instructions and/or had a specific funeral plan, you will obviously follow these.
The funeral directors will help with the formalities and arrange the funeral. A list of firms can be found at the mairie.
The costs (up to a limit of €5,000) can be taken from the bank account of the deceased if there are sufficient funds.
The mairie of the place of death will give authorisation for the coffin to be sealed and the mairie of the place where the person is to be buried will provide a permis d’inhumer (burial permit) if appropriate.
Unless there are special circumstances burial or cremation should be within six days of death (not including Sundays and bank holidays), unless the person died abroad, in which case it is six days from their body arriving in France. In the case of relatives needing to travel to France we have not been informed of any cases of problems with a funeral taking place a few days after this six-day limit.
Where a person dies in a retirement home or hospital the staff can register the death with the mairie and – if relatives cannot be contacted – the latter will take charge of a basic funeral. Family members abroad may wish to liaise with officials, such as the mairie, for organising the funeral – however this is one of the situations where a funeral plan can help.
Burial in a cemetery requires the “person responsible for the funeral” (usually a surviving spouse, parent or child) to ask permission from the mairie.
The deceased can be buried in the commune where they lived, where they died or where they have a family tomb.
Families may request to have them buried in other communes (especially if the person lived there at some point or other family members are buried there) but the mairie may decline the request.
If the deceased had not already reserved a burial plot (une concession) you need to buy one. This is done at the mairie or, in some towns, at the bureau des cimetières. Costs vary depending on timespan which ranges from five - 15 years, to perpetuity and can usually be paid in installments.
If the family lacks means to pay, there are free concessions for about five years.
Enquiries about burial must be made as soon as possible (especially if a plot had not been reserved in advance) so as to organise a time and date. If a reservation was made, you need to look for the document certifying this (titre de concession).
Burial without a coffin is not allowed – and a lightweight cardboard or plywood coffin is the minimum permitted.
Normally cemeteries require flat paving to be placed over the grave before the family can install a headstone.
Cremation is authorised (by the commune where the death took place or, if the body was transported, where the coffin was sealed) on written proof of the deceased’s will or by request from the person responsible for the funeral.
A medical certificate showing there are no medical or legal reasons preventing cremation is required. Pacemakers must be removed by a doctor or embalmer.
Cremation normally takes place in the crematorium nearest the place of death.
If you are booking a cremation, the time given may be that for the actual committal of the body so check when people need to arrive.
In simple crematorium funerals, family and friends will be left with the coffin, to pay respects in their own way, with readings or music etc. After the permitted time a curtain will close over the coffin or the people attending will be asked to leave, leaving the coffin in place.
Following cremation, the ashes are usually given to the family member responsible for the funeral in a special room set aside for that purpose.
A room is reserved for temporary storage and to allow the family to reflect on what they want to do with the ashes.
Upon expiration of this period, the family is asked to collect them. If the family does not, the ashes may be scattered in the remembrance garden.
Options for the ashes include retaining the urn, which may be for example stored in a columbarium or vault, or scattering the ashes. Using a remembrance garden for the latter may require a link between the commune and the deceased - and permission from the mairie.
The above is an edited extract from our French Inheritance Law 2016 helpguide which includes a full chapter on the topic. You can buy the guide (€9.90) as a print (plus P&P) or download version at the helpguide section of connexionfrance.com
The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr