Paris Death Salon Shows Life in Funeral Industry

April 11, 2011
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image“Care to try out the coffin?” Surprised but intrigued, the young man lays himself down on the ivory satin fabric and holds his breath as the heavy lid closes over him.

At the Salon of Death, everything is permitted.

For the first time in Paris, death is the star at a free exhibition taking place underneath the famed Louvre museum.

“It’s good to talk about death in the heart of the capital, because we’re a society pretty much based on consumption and leisure,” said Jean-Paul Soltani, who makes funerary monuments in the northwestern region of Brittany. “And here, we’re right next to the museum where they’ve got pharoahs’ tombs!”

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Funeral parlors, organ donation societies, embalming techniques, and lots and lots of marble — it’s all on display at the Salon of Death, in a surprisingly clinical atmosphere.

Organizers hope some 25,000 visitors will stroll through the Salon to admire the rows upon rows of biodegradable coffins or the luxurious funerary urns.

Or rest one’s head in a coffin, as the case may be.

“There you go, I did it,” said one young man who braved the experience. “It felt like chasing away a little devil.”

For those who prefer to remain upright, there’s a “widow’s bar” sponsored by the champagne maker Veuve Clicquot, which takes its name from the widow — veuve in French — who owned the company in the early 19th century.

DEAD MAN’S SKULL

An average funeral in France costs between 2,000 and 4,500 euros ($2,880 – $6,480), according to the professionals. “Most tend to go for restraint,” said Soltani. “Of course we can make all-white funerary monuments.”

About a third of those who die in France are cremated and the trend is rising, so the market in urns for their ashes is growing too.

Sandra Piat and her company Extra-Celestial showed off biodegradable urns made of cotton or even from blocks of salt.

Funerary masks are also in vogue. For those who crave more physical proof of their existence, designer Antoine Fenoglio was on hand to make resin moulds of visitors’ heads.

Fenoglio described his work as “an artistic approach, technical yet existential at the same time.”

A publisher’s stand displayed a selection of funeral requiems on CDs and non-religious books such as “Knowing How to Die” by the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca or “Reflections on the Guillotine” by French writer Albert Camus.

At another stand, a former journalist explained how his company helped people who have had near-death or out-of-body experiences to meet and talk about what they lived through.

Not everyone was fully comfortable with the idea of death.

Undertaker Michel Guelanten explained how seeing someone pass away in front of him prevented him from sleeping at night. “But taking care of the body so that the family can better face their grief — that bothers me a lot less,” he said.

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