Death and Dying in France

Find out how and where to report the death, how to arrange a burial or cremation, and where you may scatter ashes. Plus, how to repatriate a body...

In the event of a death of a family member, friend or relative in France the first thing to do is to contact the local doctor who will certify the death and issue a medical certificate of death (certificat de décès). If the death has occurred in suspicious circumstances or it is that of a stranger it should be reported to the police (Tel: 17).

The death must be reported to the local town hall (Mairie) in the locality in which it occurred within 24 hours. A relative or formally appointed representative usually registers the death. This can also be carried out by undertakers.

If the death occurred in a hospital, retirement home, prison or other institution, then it will be reported by the institution. In case of violent or suspicious death or a suicide it is necessary to contact the local police.

If the doctor who certifies a death is satisfied that no suspicious circumstances exist and the death was due to natural causes no inquiries are held. However, an inquiry is held when the death occurs in a public place or when foul play is suspected. In such cases the responsibility for issuing the death certificate and burial permit lies with the Public Prosecutor (Procureur de la République) at the local high court (Tribunal de Grande Instance).

If the deceased was affiliated with a particular religion, their local religious organisation can be consulted for guidance regarding standard funeral practices and repatriation of remains, if applicable.

Reporting a Death

When reporting a death at the registry office a number of documents need to be presented:

  • Proof of identity of the person declaring the death
  • Identity card or family book (Livret de famille) or marriage or birth certificate of the deceased
  • Medical certificate of death issued by the doctor or police

A certified copy of the entry - a death certificate (acte de décès) - is usually issued immediately if all necessary details are available. No fee is charged for the medical certificate or for the registration of death.

Death certificate

The death certificate (acte de décès) provides information on where and when death took place but does not indicate the cause of death. Numerous copies of the death certificate are provided; these may be used when notifying authorities and service providers of the death.

Once the death is registered, the town hall issues a burial permit (permis d'inhumer) indicating the time and date of death. Burial may not take place in the 24 hours following the death.

Following the Death

The mairie issues a booklet detailing steps that must be taken to notify appropriate authorities. These include, but are not limited to, the following (a copy of the death certificate may be required):

Within seven days, notify:

  • The deceased's employer
  • Health and life insurance companies
  • Bank (make special mention if the decesed is the partner of a jointly-held account)
  • Landlord (if the deceased was renting property)

Within 30 days, notify CPAM and return the deceased's carte vitale (green card). Within 6 months, notify the tax office with reference to income tax declarations, the taxe foncière (if relevant) and taxe d'habitation.

Cremation

Cremation in France must be authorised by the mayor of the location of death. Approval is granted if the desire for cremation is stated in a will or in a non-legal document such as letter written by the deceased, or if the closest family member (spouse or partner) requests cremation. It usually takes place in the crematorium closest to the place of death, although the deceased may request in a letter signed prior to death that the cremation take place in a different location. The family of the deceased may also request that the body be cremated elsewhere.

After cremation, the ashes are placed in an urn provided by survivors of the deceased.

Dispersal of the ashes

Following cremation of a body, crematoria or places of worship may store the inurned ashes for up to one year if necessary. If the ashes are not claimed after the year, they are scattered in the town where the death took place in a space provided for this purpose.

The ashes must not be divided. They can be:

  • conserved in the urn which may be buried or placed in a columbarium, or be sealed in a monument or tomb within a cemetery
  • scattered in a designated area at a cemetery: most cemeteries and crematoria have a Garden of Remembrance available for the scattering of ashes
  • scattered outdoors. It is forbidden for ashes to be scattered in a public pathway, road or river (which is considered to be a public “path”). Approval is needed by the mairie in the town where the deceased was born; the name of the deceased and the date the ashes were dispersed will be recorded by the town hall (mairie)

It is illegal for inurned ashes to be held or stored outside of designated places of deposit or burial (cemeteries and columbariums). This is not applicable to columbariums created before 31 July 2005. Inurned ashess may be buried on private property if the property is outside of city limits, the location meets municipal regulations and it is approved by the authorities.

Transporting ashes

Permission from the Préfet of the departément or region where the casket was sealed prior to cremation is required in order to transport ashes outside of metropolitan France or French overseas territories. Inurned ashes are generally not allowed within the main cabin of commercial aircraft; contact the airline directly for guidance. The crematorium can provide additional information about transport.

Burial

In France, burial (inhumation) without a coffin is prohibited.

Burial in a commune's cemetery is authorised by the Mayor. It must take place from 24 hours to six days (excluding Sundays and public holidays) following the death. The departmental Prefect may issue a waiver if there is a problem meeting the burial deadline. A burial may be organsied by a funeral parlour or the immediate family of the deceased.

Documents required are:

  • burial licence
  • burial certificate issued by the commune in which the death occurred

While there is a variation between communes, place in a cemetery, the "concession" can generally be reserved for a period of 10 to 99 years. When a family is unable to pay the fee, shorter periods of five to six years are made available free or at reduced cost. It is recommended that request for burial be made at Town Hall of the intended commune of burial as soon after the death as possible.

Within three months of the burial, the grave site must be covered by a concrete slab. Following that, a decorative tomb stone may be erected.

Burial on private ground

Burial may take place on private property with the permission of the Prefect of the property's department. Certain conditions apply and the burial on private property must have been requested by the deceased (in their will).

The person making application to the Prefect must supply:

  • proof that a burial on private property meets the wishes of the deceased
  • a plan of the property (showing burial location and proximity of neighbours)
  • a geological/hydrologist's report approving the location (underground water and other soil factors)
  • death certificate
  • doctor's certificate of death
  • burial certificate from the commune of the place of death

Repatriation of a Foreigner

Repatriation of a body to their home country may require the help of the relevant local embassy or consulate. Consular officials can assist in having the remains returned, in obtaining appropriate documentation and in inquiring about French exit requirements.

A relative or a formally appointed representative must instruct a funeral director in France or the home country of the deceased for a body to be repatriated. If the deceased was insured it is necessary to contact the insurance company so that they can make the necessary arrangements. If there is no insurance cover, funds for repatriation or burial will need to be met by the family. Insurance may varies, but accommodation and travel for relatives is usually covered.

The length of time required for the repatriation of remains can vary greatly and is determined by a number of factors including the cause of death and location of death. When death is the result of natural causes, remains can be more quickly repatriated. When death is the result of a crime, a suicide or an accident, repatriation of remains can take much longer.

A body being repatriated will have to be embalmed and enclosed in a zinc-lined "repatriation" coffin. This is sealed at the point of departure by the gendarmes (port or airport authorities). The passport should always remain with the deceased and travel with the body.

Note: Recent changes to flight security means that many airlines are no longer prepared to carry coffins.

Time Line "To Do" Checklist

The following tasks should be completed following the death of an immediate family member:

  1. Within 24 hours
    • Have a doctor declare the death
    • Contact a funeral service/undertaker to manage the burial, cremation or repatriation of the body (it is recommended to get a full quote in advance)
    • Make declaration of the death at the local Mairie
  2. Within six days
    • Make arrangements for the funeral and burial or cremation
  3. Within the first few weeks, up to a month
    • Get a copy of the death certificate (intégrale d'acte de décès) from the Mairie (this is free and may be issued immediately on request)
    • Heirs request an inheritance certificate (certificat d'hérédité) from deceased's local Mairie, or from the heirs local Mairie if they are resident in France. Proof of identity and relationship to the deceased are required and the Mayor has the right to refuse if not satisfied. Supply ID document and any documents that justify the heirship
    • Get an "Act of recognition" (acte de notoriété héréditaire), a document issued by a notary which provides proof of heirship and is needed by the deceased's spouse or immediate heir to close bank accounts, change ownership on the Carte Grise vehicle registration documents and so on
    • Notify the deceased's employer (if relevant)
    • Notify the deceased's landlord (if relevant)
    • Notify the deceased's bank and any organisations where policies are held (insurance, credit)
    • Notify the deceased CPAM health insurance office and submit the Carte Vitale. Death benefits are paid to the surviving heirs and final medical expenses (if relevant) are reimbursed
    • Notify the deceased's Mutuelle and life insurance provider
    • Notify the pensions and unemployment authorities (if relevant)
    • If the deceased was in a PACS relationship, this must be dissolved by the court (Greffier du tribunal d'instance) where the PACS was first registered.
  4. Within six months
    • Contact a lawyer to manage the dissolution of the estate. This includes the release of inheritance and declaration and payment of inheritance taxes
  5. Within a reasonable period (one to six months)
    • Notify all service providers (telephone, water and electricity), and any other people and organisations relevant to the deceased
    • Vehicle insurance and registration, other insurance
    • Tenants (if relevant)

Further Information