If the unthinkable happens while you’re in France, it helps if you know what needs to be done, says Lucy-Jane Cypher
“Since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.” As Jean Cocteau so eloquently states, death is inevitable. Yet it is something most of us try not to think about, let alone plan for. If you are hoping to spend a long time in France, though, whether at your second home or permanently, it pays to be prepared for one of the few things in life we cannot avoid. Being aware of what happens when someone dies in France can help you plan your funeral should you pass away over there.
It can also help relieve the stress of those left behind to make the arrangements. So don’t turn the page and skip to a lighter topic. This article won’t save your life but it might make your death a little easier for your loved ones to deal with.
Registering a deathIf someone you know dies at their French home, the first requirement is to call their local doctor, who will visit and issue a medical certificate (le certificat m�dical de d�c�s) declaring the death. This is not the same as the death certificate, which comes later. When the doctor arrives they will need to see the deceased’s passport or a carte de s�jour (no longer required for EU citizens living in France). Their medical declaration will legally state that the person is dead, detail the primary cause of death (eg heart attack) and give up to two secondary causes.
The next step is to contact a local funeral home (find them at www.pagesjaunes.fr) to arrange for them to take the body, either to their own mortuary or that of a local hospital. You can also contact your local British consulate or embassy, which can provide you with the details of local and international undertakers.
You need to give the funeral home the deceased’s passport, the doctor’s medical certificate, a marriage certificate if they are married and proof they lived at the address. If the person who has died is a married woman, they will also need to know her maiden name.
Dying outside the homeIf your loved one dies in a nursing home or hospital, the doctor in charge will issue the medical certificate and arrange for a local funeral director to move the body either to their own facility or the mortuary in the hospital. You are not obliged to continue to use this funeral home for all the other arrangements.
If someone dies in a public place in France, such as a hotel, or in a violent, inexplicable or suicidal fashion, then the first port of call is not the doctor but the local police (le gendarmerie). They will issue the medical certificate declaring the person is dead.
Collecting the death certificateWithin 24 hours of someone dying, their death has to be registered at the town hall (mairie) of the commune in which they lived. The funeral home can do this if you would prefer. If you do register the death in person, you need to take a form of identity for both you and the deceased. This could be a passport or a carte de s�jour. If you take a birth or marriage certificate for the deceased, you may find it needs to be officially translated first. You also need to take the medical death certificate issued by the doctor or police.
You will be asked to provide details of the deceased, including their next of kin, full name etc. This information will then be recorded on the official register and you will receive a certificate, the acte de d�c�s, containing the same information. “In France there is no central registry corresponding to the General Register Office in the United Kingdom,” explains Angela Clohessy, a British funeral director with 14 years’ experience. She now lives in France and advises fellow expats on how to deal with the death of a loved one.
You will not be charged for the death certificate and you will need many copies during the course of arranging the funeral so ask for a dozen or so copies for future use.
Informing the UK authoritiesWhether the deceased is a French resident or was just visiting, there is no need to inform the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the British Embassy in France of their passing. Nonetheless, the embassy is there to help you with arrangements and in dealing with the French authorities. They can also register the death in the UK and issue you with a UK death certificate, although it is not obligatory to do this and will cost you €117 (�100.46) for the registration plus €75 (�64.40) for each copy of the death certificate.
RepatriationOnce the death has been registered, the funeral can be organised. The first thing to consider is whether it should take place in the UK or France. A body can be repatriated although this is quite a costly and bureaucratic affair. Your travel insurance may cover repatriation fees, or if you are resident in France you can take out funeral expenses insurance which may also pay the repatriation fee. If not, the family must cover this directly, which Age UK estimates at being around €5,000 (�4,293).
This is before the costs of the funeral in the UK are considered. “Repatriation is costly and is not always the preferred option,” warns Angela Clohessy. “In my experience most expatriates who die in France opt for a cremation service and in some cases the ashes are taken back to the UK by the family.”
If you do decide to take the body back to the UK, contact the insurance company if you have one as they will make all the arrangements for you. If you are organising things independently you will need to appoint a French and a UK undertaker who can liaise with each other to sort out the details. This might not be so easy if they don’t speak each other’s language, so find someone who can interpret between the two.
Before the body can be taken back to the UK, you will need to have acquired an embalming certificate, a certificate from the hospital or mortuary to show the deceased had no significant or communicable diseases, and one called a laissez-passer, which allows a body to cross international borders and communes, which the undertaker will provide. You will also need to provide the deceased’s passport, death certificate, birth and marriage certificate, all of which must be translated by a sworn translator.
Once the body has been brought home, you will need to make sure the UK coroner is satisfied that the cause of death is clear and not suspicious before you can arrange a funeral. “When a body is repatriated to the United Kingdom from France the coroner will only hold an inquest if the death was violent or unnatural or sudden and the cause unknown. As the cause of death is not given on the French death certificate, the coroner may order a post mortem as part of the inquest, even if a post mortem has already been carried out in France.” Angela advises. They may also call for an inquest or wish to see statements from the doctor or police official who signed the initial medical death certificate in France.
Funeral arrangements in FranceIn France, as in the UK, a body can be buried or cremated. By law, the funeral must take place within six days of death, although the departmental pr�fecture can waive this in certain circumstances.
As in the UK, cremation is becoming increasingly popular in France, where traditionally burials following religious ceremonies have been the norm. According to the Association Fran�aise d’Information Fun�raire (AFIF), over the last 30 years cremations have increased from fewer than 1% to nearly 25% of funerals.
Cremation is cheaper than burial and also allows for remains to be transported back to the deceased’s home country. To scatter ashes in France you must first inform the mairie where the deceased person lived or was born, so they can note in a register where the ashes were scattered.
In recent years France has tightened up its rules on where ashes can be dispersed. Current legislation states you can scatter them in the countryside but not on a public highway. You can also place the ashes in a columbarium – a vault for the storage of cremated remains – or they can be buried in a designated garden of remembrance, a crypt or burial chamber or else stored in a place of worship. You cannot store them at home and the crematorium can only keep them for up to a year. If you try to keep the ashes or scatter them anywhere except these designated areas, you are liable to a €15,000 (�12,879) fine.
You can arrange with the funeral home to take the ashes back to the UK in a zinc-lined urn, or you can take them back as hand luggage in the container the crematorium provides them in. In either case you need to have a cremation certificate from the crematorium confirming the event has taken place.
If the ashes are unaccompanied, you will need a laissez-passer statement to allow them to cross borders. In both cases you will also need the death certificate and the certificate which declares that the urn or container has been sealed. This comes from the maire of the department where the cremation took place. You can get this via your funeral director. If you are taking the ashes out of the country yourself, Angela suggests you contact your airline to advise them you are taking cremated remains out of the country. She also advises that on arrival at the departing airport you go to the information desk and show them the sealed urn and all of the above documentation. They should photocopy all the documents and give you back the originals.
A burial generally takes place in France within three days of death. If the burial takes place in a different commune to where the person died, the town hall will issue the funeral director with a burial permit, or the local prosecutor will issue the permit if the death has been investigated by the police.
You will also need to buy a burial plot from the local mairie, which runs the cemetery. These plots can be hired’ on a long-term basis for periods of 15, 30 and 50 years. Some are also available in perpetuity. Where funds are short, it is also sometimes possible to buy a plot for free or at a heavily reduced cost for a period of up to five years. Most cemeteries demand that the grave be covered by a concrete slab three months after the burial; only then can the headstone be erected.
You can leave a request in your will to be buried on your property, and this will be adhered to providing the town hall is satisfied that the burial plot is in a suitable place, far enough away from other homes and on the right kind of terrain.
Planning ahead”Since my relocation to France from the United Kingdom in 2003, I have found that death and dying is a taboo word,” observes Angela Clohessy. All of us like to think that we are to some extent immortal; because of this the majority of people do not like to think of death, either of ourselves or someone close to us.
“You can help those who have to cope in the event of death by leaving a clear written record of your wishes with regard to your funeral; whether you wish to be buried or cremated, in France or elsewhere and giving guidelines on funeral details.”
You can do this, says Angela, by making either a will or a written statement, which you leave with relatives, at the mairie and your notaire or planning in advance via a funeral director in France to ensure your wishes are carried out according to your written details.
In France, if you express wishes about how you want your funeral to be conducted, your family have to respect those wishes by law. You don’t have to have written down your plans but it would clear up any confusion if you did so.
You can also take out funeral plans with insurance companies, which will release a certain amount of money to the funeral home on your death to cover your expenses. Be aware, though, that you may need to review your policy from time to time to make sure the amount available will still meet the cost of the funeral, as prices increase over time. Also make sure that your policy will pay back to your family any money left over once the funeral has been paid for.
You should also stipulate in your will if you don’t want your organs to be donated, as the default position in France is that they will be available, if you die in hospital. If you want to donate your body to science, you can again make that request by handwriting a letter to a medical establishment that accepts donations, which will then send you back a form to complete. More details on this are available on the Age UK information sheet, Death and Dying in France, available from the charity’s website. Useful vocabulary
la personne d�funte = the deceased
une obs�ques = a funeral
les pompes fun�bres = funeral directors/undertakers
la cr�mation = a cremation
un enterrement = a burial
un cercueil = a coffin
une urne fun�raire = a funeral urn
les cendres (fem) = the ashes
un permis d’inhumer = a burial permit
un acte de d�c�s = death certificate
le certificat m�dical de d�c�s = the medical certificate declaring the death
le rapatriement = repatriation
une concession = a burial plot
un forfait contrat obs�ques = a funeral plan
Angela Clohessy Dip FD MBIFD
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 63 39 55 97