France is a country where most rules governing life are codified, and dealing with death is no exception.
It is also a nation where the Roman Catholic church has played a huge part in shaping the culture, even though the republics that followed the fall of the monarchy have distanced themselves from the church.
For years, the official Roman Catholic church forbade cremations, and only after 1963 did it start to ‘tolerate’ them.
As far as administration is concerned, all deaths have to be certified by a doctor.
A death in hospital or care home
If someone dies in a hospital or a retirement home from non-violent causes, the certification alone is required, but if it is a violent death, which includes accidents or a suicide, a hospital or retirement home doctor must also notify the police or gendarmerie.
If they are called, a funeral cannot be held before a legal document called a procès-verbal aux fins d’inhumation is obtained from law enforcement officers, acting under instruction from the department’s procureur de la République.
Usually, the procedure is quick and smooth, unless foul play is suspected.
The hospital or care home operator is required to declare the death to the mairie of the commune, where the person lived, within 24 hours.
A death at home
If someone dies at home, the same procedure applies as in a hospital or care home.
A doctor visits the home and issues a certificate, unless the death is determined to be violent, in which case the police or the gendarmerie are called.
A death on a public road
When someone dies on a public road, the procedure is similar.
A doctor, often from the Samu emergency service, certifies the death, but if it is a violent death, the police or gendarmerie become involved.
In this situation it is often the police or gendarmes who are charged with declaring the death at the mairie.
How to declare a death
Any adult can declare a death at the mairie, but guidelines state it is best if a family member does so, or someone who knows the deceased’s situation.
Where a funeral firm makes the declaration, as some do as part of the plans chosen by the family, they have to have a mandat, usually signed when the contract is agreed.
A family member or a friend declaring the death must have valid ID, the death certificate, if it is available from a doctor or the police or gendarmerie, and, if possible, the ID and other documents of the dead person. A livret de famille is particularly useful.
As for timing, hospitals and care homes must declare the death of one of their patients/residents within 24 hours.
For someone who dies at home, there is no official deadline for declaration but loved ones are advised to do this as soon as possible, so as to clear the way for the funeral.
Bodies kept in hospital morgues can stay free for three days before daily charges apply.
For private morgues, charges apply from the first day.
It is wise to request multiple original copies of the death certificate. They will be required for administrative purposes, such as closing bank accounts, or for the deceased’s employment records.
Keeping the body at home until the funeral
Compared to the UK or US, one difference is that it is still common in some rural areas for the dead person’s body to be kept at home until the funeral.
Depending on the situation, family members wash and prepare the body, or people from the funeral home do it.
The body is laid out on a table or a bed, and people come to spend time with the family in the room along with the body, which sometimes has candles placed near the head.
If necessary, funeral directors have refrigerated trays for the laying out in warmer months.
Funeral directors and cemetery plots
Funeral directors (pompes funèbres) are usually able to offer a full range of services, including dealing with the mairie for a place in the local cemetery if one has not been booked in advance, and arranging for a religious service where required.
Mairies often allow discounts on cemetery places for locals, and pre-paid prices – for example, for married partners who want to be buried together, or a family tomb to be built.
Read more: How do village burial plots work in France?
Costs can be high. Figures from trade body Confédération des Professionnels du Funéraire et de la Marbrerie, reveal the average prices in 2020 were €3,800 for a cremation and €4,300 for a burial.
Some parts of the process, such as sealing the coffin, can, in law, only be done by registered professionals.
Death insurance savings plans (assurance décès) that cover the cost of funerals and give a tax-free sum to named people are available, but it is worth finding out if they stop offering cover at a certain age.
Many pompes funèbres accept individuals who open accounts before their deaths, which can help to reduce the cost for family members.
Alternative funerals and ceremonies
There is now a greater range of approved coffins in France than before, including cardboard ones, costing on average €300, but do not expect every pompes funèbres to offer them.
Some firms also offer models of urn that claim to be made from material containing fewer harmful substances.
Similarly, finding an alternative location to traditional cemeteries can be challenging.
A few places have special ‘funeral woods’ or ‘natural cemeteries’, where the person’s ashes can be dispersed among the roots of a tree planted especially for them, or where you can bury a biodegradable urn.
Otherwise, when it comes to scattering ashes, this can be undertaken in dedicated remembrance gardens, at sea, or in the wild – though no ashes must go into public gardens or on to the street.
For those who do not want a religious ceremony, one option to mark a death is to hire a humanist officiant, several of whom advertise English-language services in France.
Our help guide to inheritance law contains more about procedures after a death.