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The Gay and the Dead

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

 

“Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married.”

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

It was an interesting month for the institution of marriage. Gays and lesbians in the United States were getting married all over while many of those who were heralding the brilliance of the Mel Gibson movie dealing with the crucifixion of one more tolerant than they were being driven crazy by the sight and screaming for someone to do something. George W. Bush decided to celebrate the movie’s opening by announcing that he supports a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Meanwhile, across the ocean the French were dealing not with gay marriage but the marriage of the quick and the dead.

In the Riviera city of Nice, Christelle Demichel married her fiancee who missed the wedding. He missed it because he had been killed by a drunk driver a year earlier while riding his motorcycle. The wedding was held on the day that would have been his 30th birthday.

According to reports, some 40 people attended the wedding and reception that took place in a local restaurant. The champagne bottles had labels on them with the names of the newlywed bride and her dead fiancee inscribed on them. Describing the occasion, Ms. Demichel said: “I had what you can call a perfect wedding.” Later she said, in a phrase faintly reminiscent of what was said about the about the man in the movie at the conclusion of the events depicted therein: “I have transcended death.” She was, of course, not referring to the same thing. In fact, it is not clear to what she was referring.

While the chief proponents of brotherly love are being driven into a frenzy by the sight of gays and lesbians getting married, a sight that apparently threatens the foundations of their own relationships, the French are marrying dead fiancees at the rate of about 20 a year without any visible signs of upset among the populace. It may be that the sight of a living person marrying someone who has been dead a long time is not as threatening to the fervently heterosexual as the sight of a same sex marriage.

The French practice dates back to 1959 when Charles DeGaulle was president. Following a flood in Southern France that killed hundreds, one of the survivors implored the president to do something so that she could proceed with her marriage plans even though her husband-to-be had drowned. One surmises that she may have made a sizeable down payment on the church and the reception and hated the opportunity for a perfectly good party to be wasted. As a result of her request, the National Assembly drafted a law permitting not only that particular supplicant, but other people as well, to marry their dead bethrotheds.

The uniting of the quick and the dead is not a matter of right. The quick must apply to the French president who then forwards the request to the Minister of Justice who then forwards it to the prosecutor in the place where the quick resides.

The prosecutor determines whether a marriage had in fact been planned. One assumes that the survivor could show the wedding gown, receipts for the deposit on the place the reception was to be held, the engagement and wedding rings and similar indicia of intention to marry. The prosecutor then gets the permission of the deceased person’s parents (something the deceased had already done if a man) and if it is received, approval goes up the chain down which the request came. The president then signs a decree permitting the marriage.

In this particular wedding, there was an orange armchair in which the deceased would have been seated had he been able to attend the festivities. In place of wedding vows, the presidential decree permitting the marriage was read. Rings were not exchanged and the part about “until death do us part” was probably omitted.

Some may assume the marriage is performed in order to bestow the right of inheritance on the living spouse. That is not the case. Although the marriage is effective as of the day before the day the nonliving newly wed died, the law specifically disallows any rights of inheritance to the new spouse. However, since the marriage becomes effective before the death, the death terminates the marriage and the survivor would not have to get a divorce if remarriage were contemplated.

It’s all very sensible. It’s too bad we can’t react to gay marriage the way the French react to post-mortem nuptials realizing as do they, that it only affects the participants and has no effect on officious intermeddlers.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

 

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