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In the past, there were specific paths, and none other could be taken, to carry the corpse from the house of the deceased to the church and the cemetery. Those paths were used in some places for all relations between the house and church, such as baptisms, weddings or Sunday services. They were therefore known as elizabideak' or church ways and mass ways. In other parts, there were generally considered to be funeral ways, although not exclusively, as they would be used for other religious processions, such as the rogations. They were known under different names, such as andabideak or gait paths, gorpuzbideak, paths of the body, guruzbideak, paths of the cross, and hilbideak, corpse ways.

In some locations, they were also used to take the Viaticum to the dying or, as was the case in the northern Basque Country, the nearest or first neighbour, lehenatea, had to go and return along it when, immediately after a death occurred, he went to the church for the parish cross to take it to the house of the deceased and place it next to the corpse.

In clustered neighbourhoods, the corpse was taken along the shortest or most convenient roads or paths, even though traces of the corpse ways remain. The existence of those ways can be seen in the places with a scattered population, where it was a long way from the farmstead to the church. The different type of settlements on the Atlantic and Mediterranean sides of the watershed sets a separation line, to the north of which the existence of corpse ways is recorded, while the traces are more blurred to the south[1].

Their routes have generally remained unchanged overtime. There is religious respect for them and the way has a sacred status. If the route was changed as a section was impassable or for other reasons, the passage of the corpse, of the cross that led the procession or of the funeral cortege itself created an easement, and customary formulas existed that warned of its creation or prevented one from being established[2].

The private corpse way sometimes led to the district and from there onwards, it became a common way for all the houses of that neighbourhood. Part of its route could coincide with country lanes or cart tracks. In some locations, to ensure the specific nature of the corpse sections, a milestone would be placed in the middle of the path to close the way and prevent carts or other means of transport that were not part of the funeral corteges from using them. In Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, there was the custom and legal requirement not to build houses next to the corpse ways and enclosing the land next to them was not allowed in some locations[3].

The local residents were in charge of their upkeep, and they repaired them every so often or when there was a death, on the basis of communal work, auzolana.

The exact origin of the custom of using the corpse ways that has spread to other countries and places is unknown[4]. Bonifacio de Echegaray[5] put forward a hypothesis that could be used by analogy for other peoples. When it was necessary to bury the corpses in a common place for everyone, far from the domestic land, the route laid out for the deceased on their final journey was the path that maintained the link being the living and the dead and thus ensured the observance given the precept that required the proximity of the home and of the grave.

José Miguel de Barandiarán[6] put forward a similar theory. In the past, the grave was linked to the homestead, but with Christianity the graveyard was separated from home and became a place with the graves of the other homesteads at the common place of worship or around it. The grave continued to be attached to the home and also linked to it by the pathway, elizbidea, hilbidea or zurrunbidea.

Each home or farmstead had its pathway because, reportedly, the first deceased of the home had been taken along it in the past. With the passing of time, some of the corpse ways became country lanes, meaning that they were also called herribideak in some places. Later on, they disappeared totally or partially as the construction of easier tracks and paths and the arrival of the car as a means of transport meant that the former corpse ways fell into disuse.

  1. Bonifacio de ECHEGARAY. “Legal meaning of certain funeral rites of the Basque Country” in RIEV, XVI (1925) pp. 208-209.
  2. The 1885 Diocesan Synod of Vitoria del established that “Right of way cannot be refused along the land next to the path, when the latter is impassable, to the parish priest who is accompanying a corpse or who is going to administer a sacrament to the ill or comfort the dying, but that privilege does not create an easement, and the priest must, depending on the urgency of the situation, notify beforehand the owner or tenant of the property”. Decretos y Constituciones del Sínodo Diocesano de Vitoria. Vitoria, 1885, pp. 137-138.
  3. Resurrección M.ª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Volume I, Madrid, 1935, pp. 213-214.
  4. H. POLGE. “Andabidia” in CEEN, X (1978) pp. 17-19. Citando a C. Dangé provides the names collected in Gascony of camín glesian, church way, and camín mortau, corpse way. In the 19th century, in the chemin des morts, path of the dead, appears in the land registries of central Gascony. There is camín mourtau in the Haute-Garonne; camí dei morts in Périgord; vieux chemin in Charente, Gironde, Pyrénées-Orientales, etc.
  5. Bonifacio de ECHEGARAY. “Legal meaning of certain funeral rites of the Basque Country” in RIEV, XVI (1925) p. 220.
  6. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas Funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián, 1970, pp. 45 & 47.