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Death And Destitution: How France Buries Its Homeless

A collective called Les Morts de la Rue keeps tabs on the deaths of homeless people, and tries to reach out to families that are in many cases estranged.

Homeless people sleeping near Places des Vosges in Paris
Homeless people sleeping near Places des Vosges in Paris
Faustine Vincent

PARIS — Decorating the paths in the park are dozens of flowerpots bearing a name, an age and a date. "Antonio Luis, 48 years old, 18/02/2019," reads one. Another is marked, "Karima, 28 years old, 21/09/2018." In some cases the inscriptions are even less detailed: "A man, 20/01/2019."

Last year, 566 homeless people died in France, up from 511 in 2017, according to the humanitarian association Les Morts de la Rue, which paid them a public tribute on April 2 in the Villemin Garden, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. And those are just the reported deaths. The real figure may be several times higher

Each death — almost all of them premature (the average age is 49) — raises crucial questions about the funeral process. First there's the task of identifying and contacting the family, with whom the deceased were often at odds. If the family is found and can pay the costs — around 3,000 euros — they usually take care of the funeral. Otherwise, the homeless are buried in an individual concession in the "common ground" of cemeteries, formerly known as the "poor ground."

"People always imagine that the homeless have no identity or family, and that they are buried in a mass grave," says Cécile Rocca, coordinator of the collective. "That's just not true."

"In a country he didn't know"

French law requires parents, children or spouses to pay for the funeral. Investigations are therefore systematically carried out — sometimes by the hospital, sometimes by the police, depending on where the person died — in an effort to reach out to the families. In Paris, Les Morts de la Rue also helps find families so that they can attend the ceremony.

For Lati, a 37-year-old Slovak who died on New Year's Eve, it was a race against time. Ariane Hochet, a young volunteer in civic service with Les Morts de la Rue, managed to find Lati's family just before he was transported in a collective convoy to the common graves of the Thiais cemetery (Val-de-Marne).

It's easy to look like you're doing fine.

These graves are called the "Fraternity Gardens." They are large, identical and bare white stones that contrast sharply with the majesty of the neighboring Chinese graves on the other side of the hedge. The bodies are exhumed after five years to free some space. Daniel Terrolle, an anthropologist who was one of the first to work on the death of the homeless, calls it a "second death."

"When I told them the news of Lati's passing, his brother and sister were surprised," Hochet recalls. "A year earlier, he had sent them a photograph of himself with a construction helmet on his head, and told them that he had found a job and an apartment. It's easy to look like you're doing fine."

When Lati died, he had been in France for two years. His family traveled from the Netherlands, where they had emigrated after leaving Slovakia, to the crematorium at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. They asked where Lati slept. "It felt strange to have to tell them that he lived in a tent, on Oberkampf Street in Paris, in a country he didn't know, with a language he couldn't speak," the young volunteer explains.

Sometimes the family refuses to come to the funeral, by choice, or for fear of being asked to give money they do not have. They are often unaware that if they do not have the necessary funds, municipalities are responsible for covering funeral costs. But some town halls are reluctant to fulfill this legal obligation. In Paris — where 3,622 homeless people were identified in February during the second edition of the Nuit de la Solidarité (night of solidarity)— the system works, but associations elsewhere in France regularly face dead ends.

The law provides that the mayor or the State representative in the department must "urgently ensure that any deceased person is buried and decently inhumed." But these notions — "urgency" and "decency" — are vague and left to interpretation. Often it takes over three weeks for a homeless to be buried, sometimes much longer.

When there are delays, "it's often because the files are just lying around on a desk," Les Morts de la Rue member Crystal Estela explains. "The town halls are waiting and hoping that after a while, the family will eventually pay. This creates an unbearable inertia for relatives, who cannot properly grieve."

Last year, the municipality in one Parisian suburb refused to pay for the funeral of the stillborn child of a homeless couple, reasoning that it was up to the hometown of the parents to do so. Unable to wait any longer, the father ended up selling his car, in which he sometimes slept, so that he could finally bury his child.

Between the red tape and the uncertainty linked to funeral costs, time stretches out, even when no family is found. "When town halls don't do anything to remove the deceased from the mortuary, I see it as mistreatment of the deceased," says Yannick Tolila-Huet, who heads the mortuary at Beacon Hospital in Clichy (Hauts-de-Seine) and at Bichat Hospital in Paris. "We'll freeze the body, but we don't have a lot of space."

Tolila-Huet has been asking for an appointment with the town hall of Clichy for the past three months to unblock the situation, without any success so far.

In March, the city of Saint-Denis was called to order by the prefecture for a body that had been on standby for several months. Stéphane Tricoche, director of civil status at the town hall, denies any negligence on his part, and points to another problem: "We didn't have the green light from the public prosecutor's office, and the death certificate wasn't ready because no one had signed it at the police station."

"I can understand," he adds. "It's not their priority."

Those kinds of scenarios are precisely why the Les Morts de la Rue collective, in 2004, began to carry out funerals for homeless people whose relatives can't be found — to ensure that are treated with dignity and not "like dogs," as many homeless people fear.

Before that, deceased homeless people were carried in groups of eight to the cemetery, in coffins with no information on them except for their weight. "We do this to show that their lives matter, despite the indifference, anonymity and hostility they experienced during their lifetime," says Philippe Renard, who has been volunteering at these funerals for four years. This is also a way to compensate for the absence of the family.

Sometimes the deceased's street companions attend the ceremony — to pay their respects, even though the proceedings are an uncomfortable reminder of their own precarious situation. Gérard, a 67-year-old homeless man with a white beard and dirty denim jacket, has already buried six of his friends in the Thiais cemetery. The last time was his best friend Edison. They'd known each other for 10 years.

Funeral rituals are valuable to the living.

"He was Colombian. A remarkable man," says Gérard, who came to pay a last tribute to his friend during a vigil organized at the Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles parish in Paris by the charity group Aux Captifs, la Libération.

Gérard was with him when Edison died from a stroke at the age of 49, in 2017, near the St. Eustache church. Gérard didn't understand right away. "When he fell down, I told him "What the hell are you doing Edison?"" Now, a picture of his friend sits in the parish's chapel, which is dedicated to the dead homeless.

For each ceremony, the volunteers with Les Morts de la Rueprepare a short text on the deceased based on the elements at their disposal — often not much, or almost nothing. Hélène Zwingelstein, delegate for ceremonial and societal issues at the City of Paris Funeral Services, tried to do this in 2018. She only had a name, a date and a place of birth to reconstruct fragments of life.

While searching on Wikipedia, she discovered that a film starring AndréBourvil and Brigitte Bardot had been shot in the man's town when he was 8 years old. "It must have been quite an event for the children," she imagines. She studied a map of the area too, and guessed that he may have run with his friends around the town's castle and in a nearby forest.

"This is really emotional research," Zwingelstein says. "I was afraid of providing a false image of him. I hope I wasn't mistaken."

The collective records the way the funeral took place, the weather, the flowers that were laid and the text that was read — details they can later share with the family in case they come forward. It is not uncommon for relatives to do so weeks or even months after the funeral. The news of the death sometimes comes to them in the form of a lapidary letter from the tax authorities requesting repayment of a debt.

Funeral rituals are valuable to the living. For the family of a homeless person, the ritual allows them in some cases to reconnect.

"They don't necessarily know that they lived on the street," says ethnologist Yann Benoist, who has just started the first-ever study on the funeral rites of the homeless. "There is a great deal of guilt, either because they did not notice it or because they did not want to notice it. On top of that there's the rejection, in the case of drug or alcohol abuse. Only through the funeral ritual can we try to bridge those gaps. It's a dialogue with the dead."

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