Justice and Solidarity

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"Dignity in the cemetery”

A few years ago, a friend on the street was shocked when he recognised B, a friend who had died on the street and whose body was lying in the city's burial chamber near the East Cemetery in Rennes. France. No mortuary dressing. He was left with his dirty clothes. He is alone, worn out from having walked the streets of Rennes, carrying misery, discretion, suffering, isolation.

This encounter with the dead, with death, provoked unrest, indignation and generated in 1998 a collective so that each dead person, without title, nor mark of affection, often without family link, finds or regains a dignity in the cemetery, hence the name "Dignity cemetery". With the help of the CLCV (Consumption, Housing and Living Environment), contacts were made with parishes, funeral directors and the city of Rennes to take street people into consideration. The first results were modest but encouraging.

Then a complementary survey was carried out with the shelters, the Social Security, the DDASS (Direction Départementales des Affaires Sanitaires et Sociales), etc…. In the responses of the street people, respect for the dead and the living, the dignity of every person, and the refusal to be identified with a number emerge above all: "I hate to see this little earthen grave collapsing with the rain," says J., "it's as if you had never existed". Agreements are signed for respect and dignity.

From now on, a slab is made, one grave per person with a wooden cross and flowers, that touch of courtesy if not elegance, a lively and unifying "goodbye", which will appease the spirit of the living. The wooden cross bears the first and last names, the dates of birth and death of the deceased. It is unifying, because the responsibility for the funeral lies with the communes that wish to do so; a territorial charter has been built and signed since 2018 by some thirty communes.

On the grave: a cup, an object that unites, a symbol of the link that relegates to oblivion the 'square' of the destitute, this 'space' reserved for those without a name, without a family, a cup that replaces the nothingness of the existence of these people who had nothing. Gone is the 'square' of the poor, so that their graves can stand alongside the graves of ordinary people, identified, rich with their families.

The Rennes collective has been working for almost a quarter of a century. It is made up of people who are homeless or formerly homeless but who are still in a very precarious situation. These people from the collective, called "6 rue de l'Hôtel-Dieu", are supported by a team comprising Jean-Claude and Pierre, who were working priests for a long time, Eliane, a Daughter of the Holy Spirit, and other volunteers who are affected by the situation of the deceased street people and who want to accompany and support the actions.

“6 rue de l'Hôtel-Dieu" is a space for meetings, exchanges and initiatives made available to the collective by the diocese. There, the collective, the team, the police, municipal and funeral authorities meet to begin the necessary steps to recognise the men and women who have fallen, fallen asleep for life: it can take a year to establish an identity, to find relatives who may or may not accept to honour their death....

Every week, flowers are placed in front of the tombs, flowers picked in one of the city's gardens maintained by this small world of "cemetery dignity". The symbol of all, Town hall square in Rennes: a composition of the flower of dignity, a flower made of natural ornaments (flower, leaf, chestnut). An ephemeral flower, like a mandala* for the spirit of the deceased, like a resonance that reminds us that every individual has the right to life but also to death with the greatest respect.

Thirty-two people, mainly men and women between the ages of 40 and 60, were buried in 2019 and 2020.

In the Departments of western France, in the Brittany region -Ille-et-Vilaine, Morbihan, Côtes-d'Armor and soon Finistère- some thirty charters have been signed with the municipalities to identify the dead in the street or in extreme poverty, with no ties or attachments other than their neighbourhood or fellow wanderers.

Just before the feast of All Saints, a tribute is paid to these people so that everyone can enrich this gesture of communion and human solidarity with their presence.

Eliane Nicol and the Rennes community - assisted in the writing by another volunteer!
Published on 12 November 2021

* Mandala: a circular drawing organised around a centre that opens onto the infinite, practised in all civilisations because, in the East as in the West, the circle is the symbol of life.

Filles du Saint-Esprit 15 bd. Sebastopol 35101 Rennes Cedex 2 France

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