Wearing masks guarding their mouths and nose, five men dressed in black lower a coffin to a grave dug in the ground.
Despite the restrictions applied by the pandemic, a French brotherhood continues to escort the deceased to their last abode, faithful to eight centuries of tradition.
The ringing of a bell breaks the silence in the cemetery of Béthune, a city in northern France. Dressed in black capes and white gloves, they are known as the “Charitables” or the “charitable”.
Despite the coronavirus, “our mission remains identical. We do exactly the same thing, regardless of the social rank of the deceased.”
Assets or retirees, the 25 members of the brotherhood bury approximately 300 people dead each year in that city.
“We have diminished our activities because there are no more religious ceremonies, but also our staff. Now there are only five of us per burial, compared to eleven in normal time, because we do not want to harm families” if we are too numerous, declares Guénot, the rector of the brotherhood.
It should be noted that its members “respect all health measures”. “We try to protect ourselves to the fullest. If anyone feels sick, of course they don’t participate. We’re not taking any chances,” says Patrick Scissors.
This man joined last year’s November confraternity following the funeral of a family member, during which I observe the “strong” involvement of his members.
“We feel that we have a social utility. Like a sick person when he receives care, the dead are also entitled to decent treatment.” On Friday mornings the cemetery is almost deserted.
The deceased is a 34-year-old homeless person with no family or friends. The members of the brotherhood keep a minute’s silence in front of the wooden coffin.
According to legend, the graves at the time could not bury all the dead. St. Eloy, patron of the blacksmiths, appeared to two of them to ask them to give a dignified burial to the dead. The plague disappeared, but the tradition continued.
Today “we have to wear masks for this virus that makes us feel sad and scared,” says Pierre Decool, 66.
“It’s a difficult situation that our ancestors lived in” in the 12th century. “But we’ll make it through, ” ended Pierre