Dispatch from Paris: Simone Veil Ceremony

Last year, Simone Veil died at the age of 90. My wife and I were here in Paris, but for some reason, we didn’t realize what a loss her passing was for France.  Today, her body was taken to the Pantheon, along with her husband Antoine’s, was officially interred in a crypt there. The ceremony was very French: elegant, grand, dignified, and emotional. And she deserved it.

Daughter of a Jewish family in France during German occupation, her family was swept up and sent to concentration camps. Only Simone and her sister, who fought with the Resistance, survived the ordeal.

Simone returned to Paris after the war and studied law. She was Minister of Justice for 18 years and Minister of Health for five years. As Minister of Health, she was instrumental in the passage of laws that gave French women access to contraception, made abortion in France legal, and limited smoking in certain public places. She became the first president of the European Parliament.

She continued her service into the 1990’s, working in various positions as she endeavored to help the poor (especially poor mothers and their children), the disabled, and patients infected with HIV.

She was a champion of women’s rights, often unpopular when she took on controversial issues back in the 1970s, but admired and respected later in life by a grateful public.

My wife and I learned of the ceremony from two Parisian friends, who explained to us last week Simone Veil’s contribution to the country. The passion in their voices and the moisture gathering around their eyes as they spoke of her compelled us to attend today’s ceremonies.

As we walked toward the Pantheon from our neighborhood, two hearses and a caravan of black minivans passed with a police escort, whizzing by the metal barricades that held back crowds who’d come out to pay their respects. People spoke in reverent tones, discussing her legacy among themselves. Simone was, one woman remarked, one of a kind.

France honours Simone Veil with rare hero's burial in the Panthéon

Photo credit: Euronews – Copyright 2018

The crowds, barricades, and police presence intensified as we approached. Thousands of French citizens crowded the avenue that leads from the Luxembourg Gardens toward the Pantheon. When the two caskets arrived and were placed on small pedestals at the first intersection, a cellist, poised on the steps of the great building, began her solo, and the crowd fell instantly and completely silent.

A few minutes later, the honor guard short-stepped the bodies of Simone and Antoine toward the next intersection, following a vibrant blue carpet that stretched the length of the avenue. Applause rose and held until the procession stopped.

A children’s choir sang as several young deaf girls signed in front of the caskets, opening their arms–and tugging at the hearts of everyone in attendance–as they said it all with the simple opening phrase, Merci Madame.

The caskets were then brought forward to the steps of the Pantheon. Dignitaries and family members sat on each side, humbled by this woman’s work, and grieved by her death, inevitable as it was.

Photo credit: Reuters Copyright 2018

The Republican Guard stood at attention, surrounding the caskets as President Macron spoke eloquently. Then the enormous doors to the Pantheon opened. The flag-drapped coffins of Simone Veil and her husband Antoine were carried in. Family members followed.

And the doors closed.

It was a sunny, hot, and humid day in Paris, with temperatures crawling into the high 80s. As I looked around at the red-faced Parisians who shuffled with us back to their apartments and cafes after the ceremony, I wondered for a moment if their faces were burnt from the sun, or crimson with emotion; if their cheeks were streaked with sweat, or tears.

I thought again, and I knew: this was France, and this was Simone Veil. Today, they laid a hero to rest, and, as they did, they wept.

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