LAVAL, France — On the first of November in France, florists are the only stores open for business.
The Roman Catholic holiday of Toussaint, known in the US as All Saints Day, is when the French, a country steeped in Roman Catholic tradition, remember deceased relatives by placing flowers on their graves.
Yesterday in the small town of Laval, in western France, cemeteries were vibrant with bouquets of flowers.
Before making a trip to the cemetery, many French attend the Toussaint mass.
After Christmas, Toussaint, which falls towards the end of a two-week school vacation, is the day when church pews are fullest, according to Rev. Frédérique Foucher, a priest at Saint Vénérand Catholic church in Laval.
“It’s the fear of death that makes us come to the church today. We all have within us the desire that there is something after,” Foucher said.
Xavier Chesne, 27, of nearby Gorron, who hovered in the back Saint Vénérand during the mass, said he came out of respect for his recently-deceased grandmother.
Describing himself as “believing, but not practicing,” Chesne said he, along with most young people he knows, comes to church only three or four times a year.
“It’s the evolution of the culture that has changed,” Chesne said.
“We go more easily to the cemetery than to church,” he said, adding that he would visit his grandmother’s grave after the service.
Others, however, seem to defy the stereotype of secular Europeans altogether.
Dominique and Anne Fortin, who attended the Toussaint mass with their grown daughter Claire, said they live outside Laval but make the drive to Saint Vénérand every Sunday.
“It gives the feeling of being part of a community,” said Dominique Fortin, who said they often spend Sundays with church friends.
“We really like being with others, staying after the service to discuss ideas with others and talk with people about our joys and sorrows.”
His wife Anne said for her, Toussaint is important because it commemorates not only the official saints recognized by the Catholic Church, but also individuals who try to live saintly lives.
“We are not all saints, but we try,” she said, adding that this year is particularly poignant because of her mother’s recent death.
Foucher said Toussaint is celebrated on November 1st because it is the day with the shortest amount of sunlight of the year.
“It’s not the night of death that is going to win but the light of life. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas,” Foucher said.
Christmas, the most-attended church holiday, occurs when the amount of sunlight begins to augment again.
“Toussaint, for French Catholic culture, is the day when we think about all our dead who we think are close to God, and it’s for that reason that there is always many people (in church,)” he said.
“Within man there is a desire that life never end.”
Jean Michel Emery lives in Rennes but came to Laval with his wife Isabelle, to the cemetery where both their sets of parents and grandparents are buried.
“We have them always in our hearts, but to maintain a connection with them, we come here to see them,” Jean Michel said.
Both Jean Michel and Isabelle grew up in Laval and said they make the 45 minute drive multiple times a year.
Today they put flowers by the family tombstones.
Max Dialale, who lives in Laval but is originally from the island of Reunion, said he comes to this cemetery not only to visit the grave of his brother-in-law, but to remember his mother, who is buried on Reunion.
“It’s a normal day, not always a day of sadness. I benefit a little from coming here,” Dialale said.
He said he does not need a special holiday to remember his loved ones.
“It’s a normal ritual,” said Dialale, who said he comes every other week to the cemetery.
“The people who are dead are always there. It’s a day for them.”