On a golden autumn afternoon in Geneva, family and we friends gathered in the chapel of Saint-Georges Cemetery to say good-bye to a loved one.
The family had been comforted during their grieving by the city government of Geneva, which provides funeral services and a burial plot or a place in a columbarium for anyone who had been living within the city. All these services are provided by the city of Geneva at virtually no cost to the family.
This includes conferring with the family about what they want for a memorial service and burial or cremation, dressing the body in the clothes the family has provided, and suggesting a priest, pastor or other officiant who will lead the service. The city takes care of nearly all the other burial arrangements.
The only cost to the family is for a headstone or wooden cross. The family may also donate a gratuity to the officiant who leads the service.
Easing the transition
The daughter of the woman being laid to rest that autumn day said all the help she received from the city made the sad process much easier. The two people who worked with her to arrange everything were "both very sweet and friendly", she said in French, and everyone she came in contact with during the arrangements was "patient and empathetic... They were really listening to our requests."
The family’s requests included that the memorial service not be religious, in keeping with the deceased mother's beliefs. The priest who gave the service was happy to make only secular remarks.
After the service, the coffin was brought through the grassy, leaf-strewn cemetery by hearse to a grave. The coffin was lowered into the earth, then the priest spoke a few words, and everyone who wished to, dropped a handful of dirt onto the coffin.
All of this, including the burial plot, was "completely free," said the daughter. The family only needed to pay for a wooden cross. Her family also offered the priest a gift for his service. These free burial or cremation services are offered to any resident of Geneva, with some restrictions.
Other communes and cantons around Switzerland offer their own kinds of burial assistance. Municipalities in Canton Vaud provide a grave to anyone who dies there. Why provide this service? A simple, beautiful reason.
As the Lausanne government website puts it, the service "ensures the respect and peace of the dead."
(All photographs are copyright Bill Harby.)
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