Marie still remembers it. His grandmother, his parents, his uncles and aunts, his cousins, all in the living room around the coffin of his grandfather, who died in January 2020, at the age of 82. He was in the middle of the room, in his house. His youthful photos lined the walls and works on the ponds of the Somme, his native region, filled the shelves. At the end of the day, after a poignant family meditation, the neighbors showed up to pay tribute to the deceased and the widow. Marie remembers the embarrassment of one of her aunts, annoyed by this intrusion into their privacy. “But my grandmother thanked them all. It was normal in her eyes, it was done.” In the evening, she insisted on sleeping on the sofa next to her late husband. Neither this particular atmosphere nor her daughters’ insistence that she rest upstairs, in her bed, had convinced her to leave the room. There is no question of leaving her husband for his last night before his funeral.
Once a common rite in France and Europe, funeral wakes at home have fallen into disuse since the second part of the 20th century. No precise statistics exist but major trends support the phenomenon. Usage, first of all. “The rite of bringing the body of the deceased home is in clear decline,” notes Christian de Cacqueray, director of the Catholic Funeral Service of Paris. “In two and a half years, no one has asked me,” confirms Éric Heckendorn, funeral director in Montrouge, in Hauts-de-Seine.
Faith, exodus and emancipation
The turning point came in France after the 1950s. The decline of the Catholic religion appeared to be a determining factor (1). Very present, from the administration of extreme unction during the agony to the funeral, the Church is gradually losing its primacy. At the same time, the rural exodus is accelerating, leading to a loss of traditions.
Then women emancipate themselves and work. Except that at the beginning of the 20th century, only they knew how to carry out mortuary toilets. They “make children” and “make dead people” according to the beautiful expression of the French ethnologist Yvonne Verdier (2). From among the female community surrounding the deceased, a person is chosen, often a stranger to the family, because those close to them have difficulty coping with this bodily proximity. It guides the wash, from bottom to top, with lukewarm water, up to the face where the care becomes even more meticulous.
“The desire of women to work while creating a family, as a couple, in a modern apartment and not in a household of all generations, has played a significant role in the decline in domestic care for the dying,” explains Catherine Le Grand-Sébille, socioanthropologist and honorary university lecturer.
A more direct circuit of death
Gradually, the nurse and the embalmer replace the groomer. Western medicalized death is emerging. “Symbolic and metaphysical markers are fading in favor of more technical and biological markers,” continues Catherine Le Grand-Sébille. From now on, people rarely die at home (24% in 2019), but rather in hospitals or in a private clinic (53%) and in nursing homes (13%) (3).
This institutionalization makes the circuit of death more direct, and blurs support from the Church. At the hospital, the body of the deceased is placed in a mortuary room. If a funeral contract has not already been drawn up, caregivers ask family members what they want. For the sake of efficiency, direct transport to the funeral home is often chosen. Families, exhausted by days at the bedside of a loved one in a hospital room, rarely find the strength to request their passage home. “When the nurse asked us our intentions after the death of our 96-year-old father, we chose the funeral home,” remembers Odile, 75, from Haute-Marne. “It’s already hard to lose your parents, so see the body in the house where we had so many memories seemed impossible. The wake at the funeral home was more bearable.”
Practical aspects also influence. With urbanization, housing is sometimes smaller, less conducive to the arrival of dozens of people around a coffin. “In Paris, funeral vigils at home are most often held by wealthy families who have large apartments,” explains Christian de Cacqueray. In the city, relationships between individuals are also more distant. “We each live at home, we say “hello, good evening”. Paying homage to a neighbor I barely know, at his home, meh!” admits Odile.
In any case, funeral directors do not always offer it. Visiting the home breaks the circuit and requires strict health vigilance if body care takes place on site. You don’t need carpet because the floor must be able to be cleaned, for example. “We systematically send a funeral advisor to the home to check that the conditions are good,” explains Cendrine Chapel, general director of funeral services for the City of Paris.
Costs are added, because it is necessary to mobilize a driver and provide additional transport. “In practical terms, it’s really more difficult. I haven’t been asked yet but, initially, I think I would try to dissuade people,” admits Éric Heckendorn. At the funeral service of the City of Paris, we prefer to remind you that funeral homes have rooms allowing families to gather in privacy. “Pastoral care is present there to support grieving families, representatives of religion are welcome,” says Cendrine Chapel.
But then, is there still any sense in watching over the dead at home? Marie-Élisabeth, retired in the North, does not even ask the question. In 2013, when his mother died, the body of the deceased returned to the family farm as evidence. “We said “hello” to her in the morning, we spoke to her as if she were there. My father was sleeping in the next room. We had invited all our relatives, it was very warm. Our hearts were not in the party , but we felt very supported, and mom too, surely,” she remembers. On this farm, away from prying eyes, the family came together, remembering memories and anecdotes. The funeral was prepared and everyone was able to participate, even the children, while the grandchildren placed a packet of sweets in the coffin, a way of paying tribute to their “candy grandma”.
This appropriation seems more natural at home than at the funeral home. Especially since the domestic rite allows you to take your time. “Keeping the dead at home creates availability,” explains Christian de Cacqueray. Spending time with the deceased, at their own pace, is precious. Marie-Élisabeth will not contradict him. For the death of his father in December 2021, just after the Covid crisis, the family no longer had the farm and their small house did not allow them to receive the body. “We looked after him at the funeral home, pressed by schedules. I had difficulty leaving him alone at 6:30 p.m., for closing, in this unknown room,” laments the retiree from the North.
A strong time of consolation
However, certain French regions seem to practice funeral wakes at home more naturally than others. This is the case in Corsica or the West Indies. “In Martinique, I have always lived there,” explains Carole, 67, a former English teacher from the Isle of Flowers. When his mother died in March 2023, at age 94, 200 people attended the vigil. The grandchildren, many of them, were playing and running from the garden to the living room. “Respecting everyone’s needs for contemplation,” explains Carole, who saw it as a way of involving them in mourning. “Then,” she continues, “we said a novena, my mother being very pious. In her coffin, she held her favorite rosary in her hands. When she was alive, having it near her was even more important than take your medicine.”
The death of a loved one can also be experienced as an opportunity to deepen one’s faith. Isabelle, who lived in a monastic community for sixteen years, buried seven of her sisters, according to the same immutable rite. Once gone, the sister is prepared in her monastic habit and placed in the choir of the church. For a few days, all services take place in his presence. Next to her there is always a lit paschal candle, a font and its bottle brush. “I have good memories of it, because we accompany her. We continue to take care of her until the end, in the last passage, the crossing of the invisible door…” explains Isabelle.
The importance of this support was particularly revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. For almost a year and a half, during periods of health restrictions, it was sometimes impossible to see the deceased before being buried. A trauma for thousands of people in France, which highlighted the importance of the funeral rite, particularly at home. “Everything was prohibited or almost everything and requests, already in decline, plummeted. But I am aware of an awareness on a subject that has become a global concern,” indicates Christian de Cacqueray. Because experiencing these rituals makes us more human. They are, as socioanthropologist Catherine Le Grand-Sébille concludes, “a strong time of collective consolation”.
(1) The weekly practice of the French fell from 28% to 17% between 1962 and 1971, that of young people (then 20-34 year olds), from 33% to 17% (Yves Lambert. The religious evolution of France over fifty years).
(2) Author of Ways of saying, ways of doing. The washerwoman, the seamstress, the cook, Ed. Gallimard (1994).
(3) The remaining 10% die elsewhere, such as on public roads for example. Source: Atlas of palliative and end-of-life care 2023, of the CNSPFV-Insee.