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Stained glass window showing the French brotherhood ‘Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi’,  in Saint-Vaast Church, Béthune         Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

French Brotherhood, Still Burying the Dead After 800 Years

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In France, a brotherhood that is over 800 years old is helping to bury the dead during the COVID-19 pandemic. This fraternity, which has its origins in medieval times, continues to assist at burials, particularly of those who cannot afford the burial costs. Even during the height of the pandemic, they have been committed to ensuring that every person has a decent funeral.

Medieval French Brotherhood

The charitable fraternity of the Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi, known in English as the Charitable Brothers of Saint Eloi, are a common sight in the northern French town of Béthune. They ensure that everyone in the area receives a proper burial. The fraternity has up to 40 members and it typically provides their service at 300 funerals a year.

It is led by a provost and the members are expected to observe the highest standards. They often bury those who are homeless and have little or no family. Robert Guenot, the current provost, told The Guardian that “Our role is to be present to ensure the dead are given a correct, dignified burial, whoever they are”. The dead person’s wealth, status, or race does not matter, the society provides them all with a decent burial.

The members of the fraternity are all local men aged between 40 and 80. They dress in traditional bicorne hats, wear white gloves and have black capes. During the burials, they stand “over the grave, they remove their hats, say ‘requiescat in pace’ (rest in peace) in unison and bow their heads” according to The Guardian .

Fraternity of Saint Eloi

According to legend, the fraternity was formed in 1188, during a plague. Two blacksmiths had an apparition of St Eloi, whom Christians believe is the protector of metal workers and other craft workers. He ordered the two men to start a brotherhood to bury the dead.

Saint Eloi (also Eligius Eloy, or Loye) at the feet of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus by Gerard Seghers (1591-1651). (Image: Adam Ján Figeľ / Adobe Stock)

Saint Eloi (also Eligius Eloy, or Loye) at the feet of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus by Gerard Seghers (1591-1651). (Image: Adam Ján Figeľ / Adobe Stock)

Revolution and Plague

Typically, during plagues, many people were denied a proper funeral. The deceased would often be unceremoniously dumped into mass graves, known as plague-pits. From the 12th century, the brothers have assisted at burials. In the past, to protect themselves from becoming infected the fraternity members often carried plants, with antiseptic properties which were believed to keep them safe.

The brotherhood was briefly banned during the French Revolution . This was because it was linked to the Catholic Church, but the members secretly continued to carry out their roles. In the mid-19 th century, the brothers broke from the Catholic Church and are now a completely secular organization. They provide their service to all religions and atheists. The BBC reports that “More than 800 years on, the Brotherhood is not just about folklore; it's part of the city's daily life and death”.

COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned life in France upside down. A lockdown was put in place and rigid restrictions were placed on the holding of funerals. Only 20 people could attend a burial at one time and all religious ceremonies have been prohibited. The fraternity members adapted their customs so that they could continue to provide their service at funerals.

The volunteers have somewhat restricted their activities at the ceremonies. The Local quotes Robert Guenot, the association’s provost, as saying that ‘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’.

Naturally, the men, who are often in high-risk groups, because of their age, take no risks. They all wear face masks and practice social distancing. Patrick Tijeras told The Local , that ‘We try to protect ourselves as much as possible. Anyone who feels ill of course refuses to be in the service’.

832-year-old Tradition

All of the members are committed to their roles and they regard it as a sacred duty. They believe that they are serving their community and carrying out an important task. Tijeras told The Local that ‘Just as a sick person has the right to be cared for, the dead person has the right to this dignified treatment.’ Many of the residents of Bethune would agree and some of those who died in the pandemic in the town had specifically requested that they are buried by the brothers.

After the end of each service, the volunteers all gather around a white circle on the ground. At the end of a funeral for a homeless man who had died the provost told the other members that, “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”.

Many of the members freely admit that these are challenging times.  Now they feel that they have a better understanding of what their ancestors had to go through. One of the brothers Pierre Decool, told The Local that, "It's a painful situation, which our ancestors also experienced," and added “But we'll get through it”.

It appears that the worst pandemic in modern times has restored the brotherhood to its original role in local society.

Top image: Stained glass window showing the French brotherhood ‘Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi’,  in Saint-Vaast Church, Béthune          Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ed Whelan

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