As body after body has passed through his rubber-gloved hands, sealed in double-layered bags for disposal, Paris undertaker Franck Vasseur has become increasingly concerned about the future after the coronavirus pandemic.
All these people ferried in his hearse to cremations that their loved ones couldn’t attend: when will they be mourned?
All these lives cut short: how will they be celebrated?
With lockdowns easing and people thawing out their on-hold lives, Vasseur suspects the enormity of so much loss will now start to sink in, unleashing pent-up grief that couldn’t be fully comprehended and expressed when everyone was sealed away.
The homes of the dead will have to be visited. Belongings must be gathered up and heirlooms shared out. Commemorations that couldn’t be held when large gatherings were banned need organizing. Ashes await collection in funeral parlors. Held-back tears will be shed.
Mimicking the motion of handing over an urn, Vasseur imagines the shock that awaits those who will have to be told: “Here, this is your mother or father who was in full health, who was watching television or you were chatting with 15 days ago.”
“You get handed an urn and you cannot imagine for a single second the transition between when you were told that they had been infected by the virus and their death,” he said in an interview at his funeral parlor, L’Autre Rive.
The name translates as “The Other Shore,” conjuring up imagery of the River Styx that separated the living from the underworld in Greek mythology. The store has a majestic round wood table where, in better times, Vasseur and his clients would spend hours making funeral arrangements, talking about the departed.
“This is where the process of grieving starts,” he said.
In lockdown, Vasseur says his job became “completely different,” a procession of death, disposal and paperwork, of days spent shuttling bodies from A to B, of waiting in line with other hearses and dealing by phone and email with locked-down families he could no longer comfort in person.
“For all these families, what impact will this have on the process of mourning?” he wonders.
“There may well be a grey zone in people’s minds,” he said. “Like a blackout.”
Because bodies had to be sealed in coffins, their loved ones couldn’t give them a tender last look or caress. And people locked down outside Paris felt that because of the stay-home rules, police patrols and travel permits that had to be shown to them, it wasn’t wise to break quarantine.
“They said, ‘Send us a photo of mother in her coffin.’ So they could visualize the deceased and their departure,” Vasseur said.
Some families sent tokens of affection, messages, cuddly toys for Vasseur to put in the coffin. He sent them back photos taken with his mobile phone.
Some are in denial.
“They have already asked me: ‘Are you sure that she was cremated? Is she really dead? I don’t believe it. It’s not true,'” he said.
“All that means that they are going to have huge difficulties moving ahead with the process of grieving,” he said. “I think it’s going to be complicated for a lot of people.”
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