the map and the territory

His grandmother’s body was already resting in an oak coffin. She wore a dark dress, her eyes were closed and her hands joined; the employees of the funeral parlour were simply waiting for Jed and his father to close the lid. They left them alone, for about ten minutes, in the bedroom. ‘It’s better for her,’ said his father after some silence. Yes, probably, thought Jed. ‘She believed in God, you know,’ his father added timidly.

The following day, during the funeral Mass, which the whole village attended, and then again in front of the church, as they received condolences, Jed told himself that he and his father were remarkably adapted to this sort of circumstance. Pale and weary, both dressed in sober suits, they had no difficulty in expressing the required seriousness and resigned sadness; they even appreciated, without being able to believe in it, the note of discreet hope struck by the priest – a priest who himself was old, and old hand at funerals, which had to be, given the average age of the population, far and away his main activity.

After returning to the house, where they were served the vin d’honneur, Jed realised that this was the first time that he had attended a serious funeral, à l’ancienne, a funeral which didn’t attempt to dodge the reality of death. Several times in Paris, he had attended cremations. The last one was of a fellow student at the Beaux-Arts who had been killed in a plane crash during his holidays in Lombok; he had been shocked that some of those present hadn’t bothered to switch off their mobiles before the moment of cremation.

His father left just afterwards: he had a business meeting the following morning in Paris. Jed went out into the garden. The sun was setting as the rear lights of the Mercedes disappeared in the direction of the motorway, and he thought again of Geneviève. They had been lovers for a few years, while he was studying at the Beaux-Arts; it was with her, in fact, that he had lost his virginity.

Geneviève was Malagasy, and had explained to him the curious exhumation customs practiced in her country. One week after the death, the corpse was dug up, the shroud was undone, and a meal was eaten in its presence, in the family’s dining room; then it was buried again.
This was repeated after a month, then after three; he no longer could remember the details very well, but it seemed there were no less than seven exhumations in all, the last one taking place a year after the death, before the deceased was definitively considered dead, and capable of achieving eternal rest. This system of accepting death, and the physical reality of the corpse, went precisely against the modern Western sensibility, Jed thought, and fleetingly regretted having let Geneviève leave his life.

from the map and the territory by Michel Houellebecq

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