Unexpected events can sometimes make or break a vacation. On my visit to Paris last summer, eager to visit the 12th-century Gothic church known as Basilique Saint-Denis, I set out on an hour-long Metro journey to the north of Paris. Knowing that many museums and other tourist sites are closed on Mondays, I had dutifully checked the website, and yes, the website said the church would be open.
I hoped to see some of the first stained-glass windows and the tombs of virtually every French monarch, each topped with sculpture representative of its time.
But when I arrived, I found the basilica filled with people who were obviously there for a service. It turned out to be the funeral of the cathedral’s former bishop (RIP Monseigneur Olivier de Berranger, 1938-2017), whose photo showed a man with a brilliant smile decked out in full bishop’s regalia. No tours today, the lady handing out programs informed me. (And she actually apologized, pretty unusual in France, where it is often assumed that any problem is your fault, not theirs.)
This funeral can’t have been a last-minute event, I thought; why had the website not warned me off? I decided to sightsee discreetly along the edges of the crowded congregation, and was examining beautiful sculptures of kings and queens atop several tombs when a guy I dubbed “the congregational cop” gestured angrily from one of the plastic chairs set up to supplement the seating. He was warning me away from the old tombs, toward the plastic chairs. I realized I needed to heed him—they were bringing in a coffin to set before the altar.
I sat, disgruntled, as the ceremony began. It was a long journey back to downtown Paris, and late in the day. I had plans for the rest of my stay, and I’d wanted so much to explore this old church and its treasures. I’d wait; how often does one get to see a bishop’s funeral, with a row of his peers in purple capes and pink caps, in a Gothic cathedral? I’d lucked into a seat with a great view of the altar, and I could see some of the stained glass and the graceful stone arches. Perhaps I could explore after the service.
Then the singing started, led by a woman with a lovely voice. Hundreds of others filled the incredible acoustics of the church, and each time the congregation sang I got more chicken skin. There were prayers, one long speech and a few shorter ones, all in French I couldn’t comprehend. I guessed which part of the service they were in from the call and response, and at one point everyone stood to shake hands with their neighbors. I know this custom from my church, so I stood and extended my hand. More formally clad people kindly ignored my traveler’s outfit of Capri pants, T-shirt and backpack.
Next, the bishops brought out plates and cups, and I thought, oh heavens, surely they won’t attempt a Eucharist with this crowd. But then priests began to flow from the congregation to join the ones already with the bishops around the altar, a veritable river of priests who must have numbered close to 200. The communion proceeded among them at the altar, and then the priests moved down into the congregation to hand out wafers to lines of participants. Neither a congregant nor a Catholic, I stayed where I was.
Meanwhile other tourists wandered in and tried to check out the tombs. The congregational cop chased them away, except for one guy who went around photographing tombs, architecture and even the service with his cell phone. Why didn’t the cop bust him, I wondered. My own cell phone was home, not working, so I couldn’t even take pictures. My only souvenir would be the program with the picture of the smiling bishop.
Priests lined up to pay their final respects, followed by the congregation. I got up to wander, hoping at least for a change of view. It was clear I’d never get my tour, nor a trip down to the crypt where most of the tombs are located. Finally I left, pausing to examine the sculptures outside of the old building, and headed back to the Metro through a neighborhood populated by exotically attired immigrants who are the newest citizens of Paris. I had missed seeing what I came for. But what an experience: a timeless farewell ceremony for an obviously beloved pastor, in a historic setting complete with incense and candles and some of the loveliest congregational singing I’ve ever heard. If one purpose of travel is to make memories, this day had fulfilled that purpose.