France celebrated Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) on Thursday, as families visited cemeteries all over the country to pay respect to their lost ones. Meanwhile in Paris, the rising prices of burial plots have been forcing people to bury their dead outside the French capital.
The Celtic origins of celebrating the dead
The Catholic All Saints’ Day historically celebrates all saints in the Catholic Church, both known and unknown.
According to scholars, it was in the 8th century AD that Pope Gregory ordered the festival to be held on 1 November, to coincide with the Celtic festival of Samhain.
November 2nd became All Souls Day, which later merged with Samhain to become modern-day Halloween, thus losing its Catholic connotation.
Samhain was an ancient Celtic festival that marked the coming of winter each year, and honoured the world of the spirits.
During Samhain, rituals around a bonfire opened up the material world to the world beyond.
Therein lies the origins of honouring and celebrating the dead during All Saints Day and Halloween.
Prices of Parisian burial plots skyrocketing
On All Saints’ Day, French newspapers highlighted the rising prices of graves in Paris.
A burial plot in a Parisian cemetery costs around 16,000 euros.
Parisians are thus resorting to burying their dead outside the city, or choosing other options such as incineration.
Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, for example, has 70,000 graves, but they are all reserved for the wealthy or the famous.
Famous figures like Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Frédéric Chopin and Edith Piaf are all buried there.
According to the Paris town hall, the situation dates back to the 18th century, when there was a steep rise in Paris’ population.
To counter the situation, burial plots in Paris are now being let out for decades at a time, rather than for life.
Why is the chrysanthemums the French symbol of the dead?
Over 25 million pots of chrysanthemums are sold in France every year, many of them around Toussaint – with florists estimating that the variety makes up 15-20% of business at this time of year.
The Catholic festival of Toussaint celebrates “all saints” on November 1 – followed by the festival to honour all “faithful dead”, on November 2 – with the first of the month always a national holiday.
Chrysanthemums are likely to be seen on gravestones and as decorations on both days, as well as later in the month for the First World War Armistice remembrance day, on November 11.
The flowers’ association with graves is the main reason why it is not advised to buy a bouquet of the blooms when visiting a new friend or someone’s house in France.
Yet, the association is not as old as one may think.
It began in France in 1919, during the first ever celebration of the 1918 armistice.
Then-President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau ordered that all graves in France be decorated with flowers, replacing the older tradition of decorating them with candles (which used to symbolise “life after death”).
Not many flowers are still in bloom at this time of year, but chrysanthemums are still flowering in autumn, and come in several varieties.
As a result, they were used to honour the First World War dead on November 11. Since then, the tradition has spread, and now begins with Toussaint on November 1.
The flowers have become a symbol of immortality and longevity, with horticulturalists ensuring their autumnal blooms by beginning their crops in early spring.
Source RFI, The Connexion