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Death throes


The state preceding death in an illness is known as the death throe, a term that originally meant struggle. This transition period between life and death is considered to be crucial as it is the last rite of passage as the person changes status and becomes deceased. There are many practices followed and care given during the death throes precisely to make sure that the dying person felicitously sets off on their last journey.

The person who is in this trance receives special care and attention. The immediate family members gather around the dying person’s bed to provide the necessary help to alleviate their state and they are visited by relatives and close friends. A very common practice in those circumstances has been for a priest to administer the sacraments of Viaticum and the extreme unction. Other prayers were also said such as the Commending of the Departing Soul and the Apostolic Blessing which granted plenary indulgence to the dying Person.

Physical signs of death throes

When a serious ill person takes a turn for the worse, several physical traits and their behaviour indicates that they have entered their death throes and therefore death is nigh.

One of the most common symptoms indicating that the ill person is in their death throes is the change in the breathing pattern: the dying person's breathing is broken, arnas motxa (Elosua-G), laborious and slow, or arnasestua (Elosua-G, Goizueta-N) rapid and gasping. There is sometimes a noise similar to a rattle that in San Román de San Millán (A) is known as ronquijo. In Zerain (G), the expression petxuen edo bularran karkalarea atera is used.

Death knells

When an ill person entered the death throes, the bells were rung in some locations with a specific toll for the occasion that was usually called the death knell. This has fallen into disuse and many people surveyed were not aware of this practice.

Caring for the person in their dying moments

When the dying person was in their death throes, they were accompanied by their family members to care for them. Neighbours would visit the sick person and bring gifts and would then stay with the family to watch over the person during the night as the situation became more serious.

Prayers during the death throes

During the death throes, the custom has been for the family members to gather to pray alongside the dying person. This only happened in some places the night when the Viaticum had been administered.

It is usually the priest who has been called to see the dying person who says the prayers of the rituals carried out in those circumstances and the relatives and neighbourhoods presents say the responses. However, if the priest is absent because the death throes happen suddenly or drag on, it is a person close to the dying person who carries out that duty.

Other religious practices

The religious care provided to the sick includes praying, but they are not the only practices performed. It is also common to light candles and prepare a small altar to receive the Viaticum. The dying person is also sprinkled with holy water in some locations.

In Oiartzun (G), the practice is following of lighting of candle from among those blessed at Candlemas or one of those that used to light up the moment during the Holy Week celebrations[1].

Causes for the death throes dragging on

A widespread belief in the past was that the reason for the death throes dragging on was for supernatural causes. The death throes of people at loggerheads or who had done harm dragged on until they received the forgiveness of the injured party. Being possessed by certain personal goblins known by different names had the same effect until they could be banished.



Death is commonly called in Basque heriotza (Bedia, Berriz, Meñaka, Orozko, Zeanuri, Ziortza-B; Aduna, Altza, Ataun, Bidania, Deba, Elgoibar, Elosua, Ezkio, Hondarribia, Oiartzun, Zegama, Zerain-G; Arano, Ziga-Baztan-N; Lekunberri­ BN; Sara-L), herioa (Lekunberri-BN), azkena (Bidania-G). The common verb for the action of dying is hil. They are also use kastau in Ataun (G).

In Basque, different words are used for dying depending on whether it refers to people or animals, and differences can also be seen according to their category.

Physical causes of death

The people surveyed, in general, described three main causes of death: old age, illness and accidents or other violent events.

In the traditional culture, the death of people who have reached an advanced age is considered to be a natural event. So it is very common to hear that if the deceased is an old person, their death “is a rule of life” and is not put down to anything special, only to old age (Moreda-A), and that “their time has come” (Apodaca­ A, Muskiz-B, Elgoibar-G).

Extraordinary causes of death

The surveys conducted in the first half of this century found popular beliefs that put certain deaths down to different causes such as spells or the evil eye. On the other hand, death was seen, as can be seen from some information gathered, as a spirit causing loss of life. The following section basically sets out facts and accounts then recorded. This subject very rarely appears in the surveys that we conducted.

Replacing death

There was also quite a widespread belief that a seriously ill person would get better if another death occurred near them.

One person surveyed in the rural hamlet of Alboniga in Bermeo (B) explained that in the 1930s, when one of his brothers was seriously ill, one of the cows died. His mother told him that that was a good sign as the young man would not die as he had been replaced by the cow.

  1. AEF, III (1923) p. 76.