Thousands of flowers take up the pavement outside self-service shops in the city of Cayenne in French Guiana in the weeks leading to All Saints' Day, but they are all fake. Carnations, roses, peonies, and lilies are all available in almost every color and sometimes covered with glitter. The flowers are placed in little plastic pots filled with sand and cement and wait patiently to be bought without ever wilting under the 90-degree October sun.
I thought I'd found the explanation for this cornucopia of plastic and fabric in the Regional Health Agency posters stuck all over the city, urging people to help "fight the sexual reproduction of the Aedes aegypti mosquito"—carrier of both dengue fever and the Chikungunya. I'd take a bit of kitsch over measles any time.
But according to a seller peacefully installed in front of his fake plantation, this enthusiasm for synthetics is primarily a question of money: You can find plastic carnations for $3, while more "elegant" plants—like lilies—cost around $9.50.
French Guiana is one of the poorest regions of France. According to Insee, "Almost 25 percent of households fell beneath the poverty line" in 2006. And it seems like it isn't just the quality of funeral flowers that has been affected by the bad economy: As soon as we entered the Cayenne cemetery, a tall guy with dreadlocks and a bucket in hand approached to ask us if we needed "anything done."
Apparently, about 200 people stride along the cemeteries through the second half of October looking to do some maintenance work on the graves. These guys repaint, weed, and polish the graves, or cover them with "jurique," a mix of sand and seashells found mostly on the tumulus, for as little as $30.
In the children's area of the cemetery, where graves and flowers are mostly white, a guy in his 70s was attaching a bunch of synthetic chrysanthemums to a tiny grave with Scotch tape. A little earlier, another man explained to our photographer that the real flowers had been replaced by fake ones in an attempt to curb thefts. Certain people, the man said, had made a habit of stealing flowers from graves to resell later.
As the sun begun to set on All Saints' Day in Cayenne, the cemetery grew livelier. Old couples, entire families, and a few tourists walked around from grave to grave, chatting to each other loudly among garlands of light bulbs and thousands of candles.
In the central alley, we saw an old woman praying next to a large white marble grave. On it were four bunches of anthuriums—maybe the only real flowers in the place.