A ringing bell breaks the silence of the cemetery as five members of the Charitable Brotherhood of Saint Eloi in Bethune solemnly remove their two-pointed hats. All are wearing black capes, white gloves and, of course, face masks.
Founded eight centuries ago during a plague outbreak that devastated this region of northern France, the charity is continuing its mission to give homeless people a respectable burial – even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our role remains the same. Regardless of the social rank of the deceased, we do exactly the same thing,” Robert Guenot, the charity’s provost, told media.
The 25 volunteer members bury nearly 300 dead every year. But the COVID-19 outbreak, which has led to an unprecedented lockdown of France’s population and limited funeral attendance to around 20 people, has forced the organisation to adapt its traditions and rituals.
“We’ve reduced our activities because there are no longer any religious ceremonies, but we’ve also reduced our presence: there are now only five volunteers per service, as opposed to the usual 11, because we don’t want to penalise families,” said 72-year-old Guenot.
They also take sanitary precautions.
“We try to protect ourselves as much as possible. Anyone who feels ill of course refuses to be in the service. There’s no taking risks,” said Patrick Tijeras, 55, who became a member in November.
“We feel that we have a social value,” Tijeras said. “Just as a sick person has the right to be cared for, the dead person has the right to this dignified treatment.”
– ‘A painful situation’ –
On one recent morning, the cemetery was almost deserted.
The deceased was a homeless 34-year-old man who had no known family or friends. Around the light-coloured wooden coffin, the charity’s members gathered for a moment of silence.
Once the ceremony ended, the five men gathered around a circle drawn on the ground, as is the custom.
“I thank you for accepting this summons. In these difficult times, it’s nice to be able to continue what we’ve been doing for 832 years,” Guenot told the other members.
Across the continent, grieving families are having to cope with the additional trauma of draconian restrictions to stop the spread of the pandemic, such as strict rules that limit travel or participation in funerals.
It is during these times that the brotherhood’s original role is restored, Guenot said.
“We want to continue to provide a little support and comfort to the families, who can no longer find each other,” said Guenot.
All things considered, the context is reminiscent of the birth of the organisation.
According to legend, members said, gravediggers were no longer able to bury the dead during an outbreak of the plague and Saint Eloi, patron saint of blacksmiths and also known as Saint Eligius, asked two blacksmiths to ensure decent burials.
“We have these masks, this virus above our heads that makes us sad and afraid,” said Pierre Decool, 66, who nevertheless feels the need to “help people”.
“It’s a painful situation, which our ancestors also experienced,” he said. “But we’ll get through it.”