This summer, after roaming through many ancient cemeteries in Paris and Belgium, all of them either city or war graveyards, I decided to take a tour of rustic churchyards in Brittany.
War graveyards exude an utter desolation. So many graves, more or less identical depending on the religion if known. So many young people from different backgrounds and countries buried where they were found.
The old graveyards in Paris or Brussels are different. They look a lot like parks, especially in Paris. You don’t feel overcome with grief there but mainly at peace. Death is nothing but a serene sleep.
In Brittany, I was in for a shock. I avoided new graveyards. I favored ancient churchyards.
Before I go on, I’ll need to explain that Brittany has always been a very Catholic region in France. During the 1789 revolution, they joined forces with the King rebels and the English ‘foe’ to try to vanquish the Godless revolutionary armies and government.
They failed (and the repression was extremely bloody) but they remained staunchly catholic.
Then centuries went by and the Catholic church is not this strong anymore. There are a lot of freethinkers now.
I remember that when we settled at Les Tertres, we had to answer this question so many times: ‘Do you go to church on Sunday?’ (Meaning - ‘Are you Catholic or not?’)
Even if people are not going to church on Sunday, they will end up there anyway at least for weddings and funerals. Because Catholics and freethinkers alike end up in the village church for their funeral.
The villages are built around the church. All of them. And close to the church, you find the churchyard of course.
Brittany is becoming quite touristy. Many people retire there. So now you usually find two graveyards in every village. One close to the church. One quite outside the village. Of course the second one is filled with newcomers. (Weird to be a newcomer even after death!)
As I said, I favored the old churchyards. There you find very old graves and engraved slabs. When you know the village families well, it’s quite easy to find their family plot.
You don’t need a map to find the churchyards because they always boast a huge calvary from which Christ watches over the villagers. Over the dead ones.
I have to admit that I find churchyards in Northern Brittany quite distressing.
The ground is sandy. There are no trees. Only graves and crosses.
The graves are very simple. Sometimes they use gravel to cover the ground without a single slab of stone. Of course it makes sense because the villagers have always been poor.
The rich shipowners, the nobility and the clergy have very simple marble tombs. They do not really stand out which really throws light on a deep religious puritanism that is so embedded in Brittany.
The churchyards are so much like the countryside. High and ragged cliffs. Swollen seas. Small fields. Grey skies matching grey slates and granit. Hard life. Simplicity in death.
Even though the graves always are well looked after (mostly by parish associations), they are quite gloomy. You know where you stand - they are burial sites and nothing else. End of the story. End of life.
I always feel very lonely and lost and anguished there even if the Paris graveyards are sometimes too gaudy and incredible denials of death.
The churchyards are quite ancient and they do not get many visitors unless someone died recently (someone whose family has always been part of the village - for centuries I mean). Then the grave is overflowing with flowers.
Since you are in Brittany, there is a heartbreaking place dedicated to sailmen and fishermen lost at sea. The omnipresent cross is made of two boards from a wooden boat. Very simple and very sad.
There is another heartbreaking area - the children’ graves. Usually, children are buried in the family tomb. Not in Northern Brittany. Those tiny graves truly made me gasp. Some were quite recent. None of them had a name nor a date of birth or death. But all of them were embellished with small sculptures of the child Jesus. Child and children.
And then there are the family plots so old that they tend to look like a sinking ship. Probably because the family somehow disappeared during the last century.
Disappearing does not mean living somewhere else. People from Brittany are brought back to be buried in their family plot by their relatives. This happens all the time. The dead are coming back home forever.
It probably helped Brittany to keep its traditions, legends, myths and folklore well alive through so many centuries.
I love Brittany. It is a proud and brave nation that shows that it can face death squarely the way it always faced toil and hardships throughout the centuries without ever loosing its soul.
I erased some of the names on the graves because the families are still living in the village.
*Good Luck, and Good Night*