Volume 1, Issue 7 (Originally Published on 16 April 2012)
The cliché of France as the land of romance and Paris as the city for lovers is a perennial in the global imagination. Yet those who have read the great French novelists, especially Balzac and Zola, or who have tried to negotiate with a Provençal peasant (see Peter Mayle’s books) know that tough-minded realism bordering on cynicism is as much a French trait.
Both romance and pragmatism are a fore in a unique French law that makes it possible — and legal — to marry someone who is no longer alive. Every year in France, a few dozen weddings occur between one living partner and one deceased partner, and they can take place years after the bereavement.
Article 171 of the Code Civil permits posthumous marriage as long as there is evidence that the deceased intended to marry his or her fiancé(e) before death parted them. At wedding ceremonies, a photo of the deceased party is typically placed where he or she would normally sit.
The presiding official, usually a mayor, will say “I did” instead of “I do” and the phrase “until death do us part” is not used.
More than 50 per cent of births in France occur out of wedlock, and a posthumous marriage allows children of the union to be legitimised. In a country with strict rules about changing and keeping names, posthumous marriage also allows a new spouse (usually the bride) to adopt the surname of the deceased spouse. No sooner is the marriage officialised than the living spouse has the status of widow(er) — as well as the pension benefits that this can bring. Officially, the couple are declared married the day before the death of the absent spouse.
Posthumous marriage was introduced into French law in 1915 for the sweethearts of soldiers who died in the trenches during World War I. Under the law, authorisation can come only by presidential decree.
The law was extended to civilians in 1959 after President Charles de Gaulle became aware of the case of a pregnant woman whose fiancé had died alongside more than 400 others after a dam burst in the town of Fréjus.
Recently, many in France have juxtaposed the legality of posthumous (heterosexual) marriage with the illegality of gay marriage. (France did pioneer civil unions for both hetero and gay unions, however, with the advent of the PACS in 1999.)
What do you think — ghoulish or practical, romantic or just bizarre? France is the only Western country to allow posthumous marriages and perhaps, like so much else about a nation that has vexed and perplexed foreigners since at least the time of Julius Caesar, it’s best summed up as — simply French.