Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Yesterday's Funeral in Saint Romain: Marie-Antoinette Bonnet R.I.P.

Less than a week after the church bell had tolled to announce the first Mass in the village for 17 years, at 9.45 yesterday morning, it tolled again for Madame Bonnet. Funerals in St. Romain are normally sparsely attended affairs. We knew this one would be different. For one thing the Bonnet family is woven into the history of St Romain like a bright thread in a piece of needlepoint, but for another, many of its members, of several generations, still live in the village and have not scattered to distant departements of France or to other countries, as is these days more usually the case..

Marie-Antoinette, aged 90 when she died at home last week after a long illness, was the matriarch of this family. She had five children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The patriarch, her husband Marc, survives her.

People had begun to gather on the parvis of the church even before the bell began to toll. The custom here is not to go into the church ahead of the coffin and the chief mourners. You wait outside no matter what the weather. As it happened yesterday was beautifully warm and sunny. It could have been late April or early May. Regular readers of this blog may have gathered that our house faces onto the parvis. At 10am, we stepped out and joined the throng, by then well over a 100 in number. At the same moment, out new priest Pere Marchand appeared at the church door vested in a simple purple cope. (My asonishment at this needs to be explained on another occasion.) After five minutes, the hearse came into view to those of us who were looking down the street to the east, although not visible to Pere Marchand and those directly in front of him at the west door of the church. Directly behind the hearse came Monsieur Marc Bonnet, being pushed in his wheelchair. And round the corner after him came the Bonnet family. There must have been at least 70 of them, including one of the granddaughters, a former student of mine who played the Princess of France in Shakespeare's Henry V, one of my productions when I was still running Shakespeare workshops here. She was 16 then and getting on for 30 now.

They were welcomed at the church door by Pere Marchand and I know that this is the first time such a thing has happened for I dare not surmise how long. Suffice to say that in the end, the church, which I think has a capacity of about 300, was not large enough to accommodate everybody. We remained just inside the doors which were open throughout the service. This lasted an hour and a half. During it were rehearsed the things we already knew about Mme Bonnet's life of hard work, running the local auberge until she and her husband retired about 30 years ago. Two things that Pere Marchand said moved me to tears, which were very close to the surface in any case: first he said that Marie-Antoinette had received her first communion in this very church about 80 years ago, and second that Monsieur Marc had telephoned him in time for him to come over and administer the Last Rites. Before the appointment of Pere Marchand I don't think this would have been possible. One would not know who the diocesan rota priest was or where he was to be found.

Madame Bonnet's funeral service was not a Mass, but it followed the Mass with the correct Liturgy of the Word right up to the Offertory. And just before the dismissal Pere Marchand announced that he would now incense the coffin containing the body of our sister Marie-Antoinette. I didn't think I would live to see that done or to smell incense in our parish church ever again. When my own mother was buried from the same church in 1997, we still had a very old parish priest based in Aubeterre. He sent the 'church lady' round to discuss the form of service with me. It was really left up to me and it was a freedom I did not relish. I sense with great joy that things are going to be very different from now on.

At the end of a funeral in St. Romain, there is one road left to travel. It is the straight road of about 500 yards from the church to the cemetery. The custom is that the mourners follow the hearse on foot the length of that road. And so it was yesterday. Holding back until the end I watched the procession make its way, and I remembered Madame Marie-Antoinette once saying to me how ludicrous she thought the new fanglement of 'nouvelle cuisine'. "Wouldn't keep my boys going for half an hour, leave alone the rest of the day's labour." I agreed with her then and still do. I'm sure that many of those who followed her to her final resting place also have cause to know that she was right.

May Our Lord welcome her to His heavenly banquet, and may He sustain her grieving relatives, particularly her poor husband Monsieur Marc Bonnet.


Annie said...

What a tremendous comfort for all of you! Prayers for Madame Bonnet and her family.

pelerin said...

A beautiful description Jane - I could just imagine the scene. May Madame Bonnet rest in peace.

I was going to add that life is returning to your village which sounds odd with a funeral but with the opening of the church once again it will become the hub of your village, as it must have been for centuries before.

On the side of the angels said...

...may Mme Bonnet go to her heavenly reward.

This may seem insensitive but thank you - your depiction was beautiful - like something straight out of Balzac.

Lives like these, communities like these - hope like this - should be whispered on the wind for all to hear and as something to which all can cling ; and cherish.

Proficiscere, anima christiana, de hoc mundo, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, qui te creavit: in nomine Iesu Christi, Filii Dei vivi, qui pro te passus...

cenacle said...

Thank you, chère Jane, for this lovely and very touching account of Mme Bonnet's funeral.