We are living longer and talking about our final days more—as a new movement showsby Sophie Elmhirst / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the middle of the graveyard in Vissoie, a small town in the Swiss mountain valley of Anniviers, stands a grey stone cross. For years, the cross was the focus of a local competition among the town’s teenagers. The brief was simple: turn up at midnight, sit by the cross, and whoever lasts the longest wins. By day, the task doesn’t seem too onerous. The graveyard is absurdly picturesque, perched on the side of a hill next to the church, the valley dropping away to a river, mountains on the far side rising up against a faultless blue sky. Even the graves are palatable: there’s no ornate Victoriana here, no ghoulishness or mawkish angels, no sentimental inscriptions; just a few rows of simple wooden crosses planted in the ground. (A rule was declared in the town that the dead should all be commemorated identically, to prevent wealth-displaying one-upmanship.)
Not long ago, Bernard Crettaz, an eminent Swiss sociologist who was born and raised in Vissoie, sat on a stone wall by the shared grave of his parents—Pierre and Genevieve—and recalled his year of competition. The dare was a test of bravery but also maturity, a coming-of-age ritual, sitting in the pitch dark among the buried bones of your ancestors. Crettaz had stuck it out, and won. He still looked a little proud of the feat. As he remembered the long night, he watched old friends and neighbours as they visited the graves of their families. It was Toussaint, All Saints’ Day, the occasion in the Catholic calendar when the living pay respects to their dead. The graveyard had the air of a cocktail party, cousins greeting each other across the bunches of yellow crysanthemums that had been placed on the tombs. Crettaz, a short, roundish man of 78, eyebrow hair so long and wild that it looked in danger of knitting over his eyes, was now one of the town’s elder statesmen. As he sat by his parents’ grave, the priest came to shake his hand. He was their local celebrity, a sort of Swiss Simon Schama, a popular academic often seen on television giving a view—his ebullient, forceful personality translated easily to the small screen. Crettaz had been a prominent ’68-er, a radical in his youth, and had enjoyed a rich career as a lecturer of sociology and ethnography in Geneva. But he was most famous for his work on death. A decade ago, not long after the death of his first wife Yvonne, Crettaz had come up with the idea of cafés mortels, informal gatherings where the sole topic of conversation was every living thing’s inevitable demise. After holding over a hundred of these cafés across Switzerland, he’d developed a certain renown. Looking a little mournful, he described how a local family who’d suffered a string of recent bereavements had turned away when they saw him walking towards them down the street. He had become “l’homme qui porte la mort,” he said, the man who carries death.