From Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia
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The occurrence of a death mainly affects the family circle of the deceased. Yet its impact extended to wider social spheres such as the neighbourhood, the town and the parish.

During our field surveys, we came across many local associations, aimed at helping the dying, the family of the deceased and to offer suffrages for their soul.

These associations have different names and characteristics. The oldest of the ones mentioned here date back to the 16th century and are known as “brotherhoods”. They are always linked to a church, to a shrine or to a chapel and are made up of groups of the devotees to a saint or to a pious invocation.

It would seem that associations known as “guilds” came into being later in time, even though they frequently appear under the patronage of a saint. They are not always linked to a church and their fundamental characteristic is to provide reciprocal services within a spirit of fellowship.

General characteristics of the religious brotherhoods

For many centuries, the religious brotherhoods were pious groups that had a notable influence on the social and religious lives of our towns. Their byelaws and statutes contain different clauses regarding the obligations for the dying and deceased members of the brotherhood. The secular compliance of such prescriptions has had a notable impact on the funeral customs and have undeniably contributed to the mainstreaming of the rites around death.

Anyone wishing to belong to a brotherhood would have to pay an entry alms that in some cases was in kind and then contribute the stipulated amount each year.

In the statutes of these brotherhoods, their governing bodies appear top-down, to use current jargon, with the posts of abbot —ecclesiastical and secular—, prior, stewards, deputies, cursors or vedares, “brothers of quota and candle”, etc.

Their patron’s feast is marked by different pious acts and other profane ones that included the brotherhood meal.

In all of them, apart from playing the quotas and attending the specific services, the members had different obligations for the dying and deceased brothers: accompanying the dying, assisting with Viaticum and the burial, being present in the funerals. If the deceased was poor, the brotherhood would pay for the costs of the coffin and of the burial; in some brotherhoods, they would provide the habit for the shrouding. The statutes of certain brotherhoods even established how the death had to be announced, the composition of the cortege, how the lights were to be arranged on the grave, what the offerings or suffrages for the deceased were, etc.

The most religious brotherhoods in the area studied were those of the Vera Cruz (of the True Cross), of the Virgen del Santo Rosario (of the Holy Rosary) and of the Ánimas del Purgatorio (of the Souls).

Guilds and funeral mutual associations

Municipal and neighbourhood mutual aid associations were set up in many parts of the Basque Country. Those covering the costs that families have to face following a death still continue to exist. Those associations have different names; in some parts of Bizkaia are known as Herriko Hermandadea.

In Lezama (B), this guild is governed by a committee of five members and its headquarters are in the parish house where it has a small office; that is where they keep the archive, collect the money from the members and attend to anyone with a query.

When a death occurs, the guild undertakes to notify the undertakers, take the coffin to the house of the deceased, organise the religious services and transfer the body, tolling of the bells, etc. The costs are covered by the guild to which all the local residents belong. Each family or homestead of the parish district contributes with an amount of money stipulated based on the number of deaths during the year.