Old and alone

by Maria on September 12, 2003

Last Sunday, the Archbishop of Paris sent a letter to be read out in every parish Mass. It remembered the thousands of people who died in last month’s heatwave, reminded us of our obligations to the weak and the marginalised in our society, and asked us to pray for the souls of the dead. It added pathos to the now difficult to grasp number of dead; 15,000. The unclaimed dead were buried by the state in simple but respectful civil ceremonies. But many Catholics (and presumably those of other religions too) who had been regular churchgoers were buried without religious rites because their bodies had not been claimed in time. Parish priests who knew their parishioners well did not have the right to insist on Christian burials. This is probably as it should be. But somehow, the idea of people dying at home, alone (as most of the dead in Paris did) without the last rites, and not being received into the arms of their churches on death, made it all seem even sadder.

I’ve only ever attended Catholic and Protestant funerals, so can’t speak for the comfort of other rites of death. The night before a Catholic funeral, the body of the dead person is received into the church during a short ceremony. In Ireland, the ‘removal’ is usually very well attended (mainly because it’s in the evening after work, and people come who can’t take the next morning off). Irish funerals seem to combine being large, public events where anyone with the slightest link to the deceased or their family attends, with an intimacy which is probably born of the familiarity of the ritual and the renewal of old ties. Anyway, the removal has always felt a little like a homecoming to me. It just seems desperately sad that those feisty old Parisians, who might have expected the sacraments of their churches to book-end their lives, were as alone in death as they were in dying.

Chris has blogged thoughtfully about the complex sociological causes of this ‘natural disaster’. And the truth is that every one of us in France is culpable, in both small and big ways. But some in the blogosphere have used France’s tragedy to score cheap and nasty political points and trot out the usual old national tropes. As in everything else, I suppose, the vindication of a mean-minded idea is something that can only be felt at a distance.

Henry’s and my grandmother and last surviving grand-parent died last year. And my breath still catches when I spot on the street or in the metro the back of a white, curly head. Eilis lived through the Easter Rising, war of independence, a civil war that divided her family, and two world wars. She witnessed, and played her part in, an Ireland changing from a colonial outpost into a robust and striving part of Europe. Her generation lived through times we can only, thankfully, imagine. The 15,000 French dead were born amidst the slaughter of World War I, looked for their first jobs during the Great Depression, and, when they were the same age as most bloggers today, bore children in a France over-run by Nazis. In their lifetime, Europe has been transformed from the bloodbath of the 20th century to a prosperous (if rather selfish) place where war is no longer an inevitability for each successive generation.

Please, let’s not dishonour their memory.



Ophelia Benson 09.12.03 at 5:43 pm

“But somehow, the idea of people dying at home, alone (as most of the dead in Paris did) without the last rites, and not being received into the arms of their churches on death, made it all seem even sadder.”

Hmm. Well, not if you’re not religious, perhaps, and especially not if you’re both non-religious and a happy solitary. Some people do actually like living alone, after all. I don’t really entirely understand all the hand-wringing about this. What was France supposed to do, force all elderly people to live in nursing homes whether they wanted/needed to or not? It seems quite possible to me that at least a substantial portion of the people who died valued their independence and autonomy and peace enough to accept the risk of dying alone.


Chris 09.12.03 at 5:58 pm

Why the snarkiness, Ophelia? I’m not a believer either, but I can appreciate that the fate of many of those who perished was worse by their lights because they died cut off from the church.

And the contrast you draw between solitary happy autonomy and being forcibly committed to a home is just much too stark. In the Chicago heatwave, death rates were lower in communities where there were functioning social networks. Many of those who died alone in France died alone not because they were cheerful solitaries, but because no-one cared, no-one watched, and no-one visited. That’s a grim thought to contemplate.


Robert Schwartz 09.12.03 at 6:18 pm

How can I dishonor their memory? Haven’t their children already done that.

It’s just amazing to watch the French. Just when you think they can’t sink in any lower, they do and in a spectacularly horrible way.


Ophelia Benson 09.12.03 at 6:31 pm

Not meant to be snarky. Just pointing out some other possibilities. It’s not that I don’t think it’s all sad, of course – more that I think it’s at least partly an unavoidable sadness. People don’t like being a burden, a nuisance, dependent, etc. It’s not even a question of ‘cheerful solitaries’ (not my phrase…) but of people who prefer risky solitude to dependent safety. I certainly don’t mean that covers all the people who died in France in the heatwave, but it could be some of them.


Chris 09.12.03 at 6:34 pm

Robert, do you think the same kind of thing couldn’t happen in America? It could, and it has, and it will again. When it does, grown-up Europeans will resist the temptation to make sneering generalizations about Americans, just as grown-up Americans have managed to do on this occasion.


Henry Farrell 09.12.03 at 8:34 pm


Seems to me that your post is the answer to your own question – quoting from Maria’s post

“But some in the blogosphere have used France’s tragedy to score cheap and nasty political points and trot out the usual old national tropes. As in everything else, I suppose, the vindication of a mean-minded idea is something that can only be felt at a distance.”


eric 09.12.03 at 8:48 pm

Actually, I wouldn’t be that hard on the French. This time. It appears that this was a ‘failure of the imagination’ so to speak.

What would bear watching is if there are any systemic changes to address such a thing occuring in the future.


Andrew Northrup 09.12.03 at 10:48 pm

Robert, shut up.


Robert Schwartz 09.14.03 at 2:51 am

Andrew Northrup:

Nah Nah Nah pooh pooh soak your head in do do.


Robert Schwartz 09.14.03 at 3:09 am


Doug 09.15.03 at 9:39 am

Warning: Mostly off-topic

When Chris last wrote about this topic, he referred to an article in the Guardian from August 2002 that discussed (or sensationalized, depending on your point of view) the 1995 heat wave in Chicago.
The one reference to Europe is an assertion of superiority, “It was brutally hot in Europe, but there were only scattered reports of mortality around the continent.”

Appartently, neither the author nor the editor thought to pose the question, “Could it happen here?” And this is very odd, because without that question the article, which appeared seven years after the events is covers, is really only doing two things – sensationalizing a disaster and painting a negative picture of conditions in America.

No doubt, as Chris writes, grown-up Europeans have resisted the urge to make sneering generalizations about myriad American misfortunes. I just wonder why this segment of the European population is so poorly represented in the ranks of major European media. Open any serious newspaper on almost any given day, and you will find a story, feature or opinion piece about how awful something is in America. Why should this disgust be so prevalent? And so at odds with the reality that I’ve known for thirty-some years?

I’m genuinely interested to find out if readers here have thoughts about why. I’ve read a semi-satisfying book on the subject, but the main insight was that the phenomenon was old and unlikely to go away. I’m more interested in why.


Chris 09.15.03 at 9:55 am

Doug, like you I find many of the anti-American sentiments expressed in the European media repellent (there was a particularly offensive cartoon about 9/11 in Le Monde last week). But the article to which you refer was written by an American, Eric Klinenberg, from Northwestern University who is the author of the book about the Chicago heatwave to which I was referring. He’s not going to ask “could it happen here?” because, he’s “there” so to speak!


Doug 09.15.03 at 4:08 pm

Chris, sure, Klinenberg is an American, but shouldn’t the editor at the Guardian have thought about that question? We all know making a daily newspaper isn’t always a pretty operation, but what’s the value for a UK audience of learning about Chicago’s failings seven years later?

Given, Klinenberg’s main motivation appears to be plugging the book. (Who can blame him?) On the other hand, there’s at least one paragraph of an attempt to localize the content. Why not another?

I think the disdain for the US is so ingrained that editors don’t even know it’s a blind spot. But that second-order question — why? — is what I’m interested in.

(Although just between you and me, all the way down at the bottom of the comments of an aging post, the discussion is altogether likely to be just between you and me.)


Chris 09.15.03 at 4:44 pm

Come off it Doug! There’s a major heatwave in France, with attendant mortality. I’m an editor and my researchers tell me that a there’s been a major sociological study of a similar episode that came out last year and which has been widely praised. I’d approach the author for an op-ed piece. Wouldn’t you? Anti-Americanism doesn’t even enter the picture as a motivation for that. As for Klinenberg, you suggest he’s moved by a desire to plug the book. But maybe he wants to do that because he thinks he has something true and important to say.


Doug 09.15.03 at 7:02 pm

Sorry to stay on it, but the Guardian article was published in August 2002. I think that was the original reason Crooked Timber picked up on it – it was out a year before the recent unpleasantness. Publication date of the hardback edition was July 2002. I’ll stick with plugging the book as the precipitating motive for the 2002 op-ed. But there’s no reason to doubt he wrote the book because he has something true and important to say. (And boy, wouldn’t the editors have looked perceptive if they had asked if it could happen in Europe?)

There’s still an opportunity for a savvy Guardian editor to approach Klinenberg right now and say something like, “You’re the expert on the relationship between social conditions and deaths in heat waves. A month after the crisis, with ca. 10,000 dead in France and thousands more in other European countries, do you see similarities with what you wrote about in Chicago? Do you see differences? Were there lessons that could have been learned? Are there lessons that can still be learned?”

Any Guardian editors reading Crooked Timber?

p.s. Google up Klinenberg, Europe, “heat wave” and you find that others have been down this road: Philadelphia Enquirer (a little snarky at the beginning, but well sourced), the Hairy Trib (K has much more faith in European governments than American), Boston Globe (K less skeptical of American action), but no UK paper in the first 30 listings. Crooked Timber ranks #10, so congrats on perceived influence as per Google.


Chris 09.16.03 at 12:16 pm

Yes, I’ll have to hold my hands up on that one – it was, as you say (and indeed as I said first time around) 1 year ago.

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