But now France’s Service Public website has published a set of guidelines that shed light on the process of registering a loved one’s death and arranging their funeral or burial.
24 hours to certify the death
If you’re in the company of a family member, friend or relative when they die, you have 24 hours to report their passing. That’s a legal responsibility.
If they die at home, contact their local doctor, or call 112 or 15. A physician will then come round and certify the death and issue a medical certificate of death (certificat de décès/declaration de décès). If the person passes away in a hospital, retirement home or other facility it will be their responsibility to report the death.
If the doctor suspects a suspicious death or suicide an inquiry is held. This is often the case if the death takes places in a public place, so if an inquiry is held it doesn't necessarily mean the authorities suspect foul play.
In these instances the responsibility for issuing the certificat de décès and burial permission will fall on the public prosecutor (Procureur de la République) in the local high court (Tribunal de Grande Instance).
Also 24 hours to register the death at the town hall
A relative, officially appointed representative or undertaker also has to register the death at the local mairie (town hall) within 24 hours, with the exception of on public holidays and weekends.
If you are going to be responsible for reporting the death at the local registry office, you have to take proof of your own ID, proof of the deceased person’s identity (either the carte nationale d'identité, passport, family book, marriage certificate or birth certificate) and the medical certificate of death issued by the doctor or authorities.
This should suffice for the registry office to hand you several certified copies of the death certificate (acte de décès) there and then, free of charge.
These documents include information on where and when the death took place, not the cause of death. More copies of the death certificate can be obtained online, in person or by post. These will be needed for things like closing the person's bank accounts or utility accounts.
6 days for the funeral to take place (in most cases)
Once the death is registered, the mairie issues a burial permit (permis d'inhumer).
Regardless of whether it’s a burial or a cremation, the deceased’s family or closest contacts have six days to arrange the service, although the time frame can vary if there’s an open investigation or if the death happened on a weekend or public holiday.
Burial can’t take place within the first 24 hours after death either.
If the deceased indicated beforehand what type of ceremony they wanted, their wishes must be respected.
If they didn’t specify, the decision has to be made by their closest relatives.
In the event of disagreement on the organisation of the funeral or burial, only the judge can decide.
The burial process in France consists of placing the body of the deceased in a grave, most often in a cemetery, and always in a coffin according to French law.
The chosen cemetery for the funeral can be in the place where the deceased died, lived or where the family vault lies.
There’s also the possibility of the burial being carried out in a private property, as long as this has been authorised by the prefecture (required documents usually include proof that it’s the deceased person’s will and a geological report approving the location).
The documents needed for a cemetery burial in France are a burial licence and a burial certificate issued by the French commune where the person passed away.
Keep in mind that cemetery concessions in France generally run for a period of 10 to 99 years and do carry a fee. Families who can’t afford it are offered shorter concessions of five to six years at a lower price.
Cremation in France must be authorised by the mayor of the commune where the deceased person died.
Unless previously stated by the deceased, the cremation takes place in the closest crematorium.
The deceased’s closest family member – usually their spouse – also has the right to request cremation or a different crematorium if their loved one didn’t specify otherwise in an official or non-document.
After cremation, the ashes are placed in an urn which the deceased person’s family have previously purchased and provided.
Where you scatter your loved one’s ashes is regulated
If you want to spread the ashes of the deceased in nature, you will need permission from the mayor of the person’s place of birth.
You will have to provide information on where and when you intend to scatter their ashes, and bear in mind that it isn’t possible to do so in parks, roads, squares or other public areas.
The best option for an outdoor ceremony is spreading your loved one’s ashes out at sea, but even then there are certain conditions relating to watercourses, and it’s illegal to scatter ashes in rivers.
There’s also the option of their ashes being put to rest in a cemetery, either scattered in a designated area, buried in an urn in the ground, placed in a columbarium or sealed in a tomb or memorial.
You have a year to decide what to do with your loved ones’ ashes after the cremation. Crematoria and places of worship will store the deceased’ ashes until then, but if nobody claims them after then local authorities will scatter them in a designated location.
You will also need permission from the préfecture where the casket was sealed before cremation if you plan to transport the ashes overseas.
The airline you choose will also be able to guide you on the process to transport the ashes.
Repatriation of foreigners is complex
If you want to repatriate the deceased person’s body to their home country, keep in mind that it isn’t an easy process.
First, get in touch with the deceased person’s closest embassy or consulate in France.
It will be necessary for a family member or a formally appointed representative to make arrangements with funeral directors in both France and the deceased person’s home country, although if the deceased person was insured the insurance company can help with these arrangements.
If they didn’t have repatriation insurance, the family will be responsible for covering all transport and accommodation costs.
A body being repatriated has to first be embalmed and enclosed in a zinc-lined repatriation coffin, sealed at the point of departure by French police at the port or airport.
Recent changes to flight security have resulted in many airlines no longer offering the service of coffin transport.
Who pays for all the costs?
Funeral expenses in France are deducted from the deceased person’s assets, usually their bank account.
If the money in their accounts isn't enough, the person’s heirs or family members must pay the difference.
Funeral expenses for a parent are deductible from taxable income subject to certain conditions.
Tying up all loose ends
Within seven days of the person’s death, you have to notify their employer if they were working, their health and life insurance companies, their bank (mention it if you shared a joint account), and their landlord if they were renting.
Within 30 days, notify France’s primary health insurance fund CPAM and return the deceased's person carte vitale health card.
Within 6 months, get in touch with the tax office with reference to income tax declarations and other relevant fiscal information. The process can be done online during the first two months after the person’s death.
And bizarrely, just because a person is dead, that doesn't stop them from getting married, thanks to an obscure French law dating from the Napoleonic period that is still occasionally used today.