4. DEATH         

In this valley the churches and numerous chapels are not very old, four centuries at the most. Each village has its own cemetery surrounding or close to the church. The cemeteries are much visited and we are in the month when from Celtic times the dead have been especially remembered. All Saints' Day is a public holiday here and so for those who have moved away a more convenient day than All Souls' to visit the family graves.

We had several days of fine weather at the end of October and the women of the village were busy uprooting the summer plants, cleaning the tombstones and replanting with heathers and evergreens, making miniature Japanese style gardens within the polished stone slabs, small works of art which will withstand the winter.

Early on All Saints' Day men and women began to arrive and take from among the boots and useful tools in the backs of their vehicles, shallow bowls containing more evergreen arrangements and large pots of bright chrysanthemums to be put on the graves. All day long they came to say a prayer over perhaps more than one grave, light a candle, chat quietly to friends and other members of the family. Children were brought along, while other children in neighbouring gardens played noisily in the hazy sunshine. On a patch of grass alongside the cemetery wall four young bulls grazed and the sound of sheep bells could be heard from a nearby pasture.

There is an ease with death I have not seen elsewhere. For a generation the dead remain close to where they were born and lived, close to their spouses and their children, their brothers and sisters, and until fifty years ago families were large. After thirty years the kitsch tombstones are removed and fresh gravel obliterates all trace of the grave. Only the crucifix with mourning Mary and John remain - in our village centuries old souvenirs of a long dead local craftsman.

We have had several deaths, The mourning bells tolls to announce the death. A funeral announcement and usually an obituary appears in the local newspaper. The evening before the funeral the church bell tolls again to summon people for prayers. The day of the funeral it rings to remind them, then to bring them to church. The coffin is standing outside the church door accompanied by a guard of honour in local costume and holding standards. The people attending the mass are not dressed up. The men do not wear ties, not even the bearers who carry the coffin into the church for the long mass which follows. A full peal of bells is rung when the mass is over. The crowd coming out of the church mingles with children coming out of school.

As throughout the Alps the people of this valley are practising Roman Catholics. After four months of living next to the church and in sight of the cemetery I would venture the opinion that apart from some of the very old the people have no greater faith than elsewhere. It is the ritual of the church which is congenial to their way of life.

7th November 2002