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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
France buries its unclaimed dead
Monique and Christian Lepabic were among the mourners
Christian Lepabic (right) came to honour a co-worker he had lost touch with
Dozens of victims of France's heatwave who remained unclaimed despite appeals for relatives to come forward have been buried in paupers' graves in an official ceremony.

The simple, non-religious funeral, in the southern Paris suburb of Thiais, took place following the expiry of the official period during which bodies can remain unburied.

More than 11,000 people died as a result of the intense summer heat in France - two weeks after their deaths around 400 people were unclaimed.

A special taskforce was set up and managed to trace relatives of most but the final 57 had no known family.

The oldest of those buried on Wednesday was 97-year-old Georgette Guebey; the youngest was a man believed to be called Philippe Leger who was 36.

The mourning of the Parisian people demanded sobriety
Bertrand Delanoe
Paris Mayor
An official recited the victims' names and the caskets were lowered one by one into individual graves in the plot normally reserved for the destitute and the homeless.

A bouquet of flowers was placed on each grave.

Among those attending the funeral were President Jacques Chirac and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, together with municipal officials, local politicians and some neighbours of those who died.

Neither Mr Chirac nor Mr Delanoe spoke at the ceremony, which was closed to reporters.

But afterwards, Mr Delanoe said: "I wanted this ceremony to be very sober and dignified, with beautiful music and beautiful text.

"Forgive me for not having allowed the media to be present, but I thought that the mourning of the Parisian people through these representatives... demanded sobriety and a lot of reserve," he added.

Collective guilt

A few Parisians who were moved by the lonely deaths turned out with bouquets to honour the dead.

One of them, Celine Rocquain, blamed people who failed to look after older friends and neighbours.

Jacques Chirac arriving at the funeral
President Chirac attended the ceremony, but made no statement
"I think it was their responsibility to find out how they were," she said.

"Dying is bad enough, but dying alone is terrible," said a man who stood outside the cemetery.

Former bank co-workers learned of 76-year-old Roger Colinot's death when they saw his name printed in a newspaper list of unclaimed victims, Associated Press reported.

Two of them attended the burial, bearing a plaque with the inscription "From your colleagues".

"He deserved better than this," said Christian Lepabic.

Hugh Schofield, reporting for the BBC from Paris, says the ceremony was an attempt by France to assuage some of the guilt felt over the thousands of mainly elderly people who died during the August heat.

The high death toll was bad enough, he says, but that more than 400 people lived in such isolation that they remained unclaimed in makeshift morgues was a source of even deeper shame.

There have been painful questions raised about the breakdown of family responsibility.

Although the heat has subsided, parts of southern France are still suffering forest fires - many blamed on arsonists.

Mr Chirac vowed that there would be no mercy for those responsible for starting the blazes, after three firemen died on Monday in a fire near Cogolin, in south-eastern France.

The BBC's Tony Brown reports
"More than 11,000 people died in France's blistering heat wave"

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