XXI. COMMEMORATION OF THE DEAD
The tradition has been to remember the dead by masses being said in their memory both on the days following the funeral and to mark a year of their death. Those commemorations are noted for being for the family as they are social practices affecting a single deceased person.
There are also other more general commemorations for everyone who has died; the most important ones are All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). The dead are also remembered on the day following the patron saint’s day and in some locations on other dates of the day.
In the Southern Basque Country, the custom of visiting the cemetery was not widespread in the past and even less so that of taking flowers to the graves; not even on the first two days of November in many places. The religious practices remembering the dead were normally performed at the symbolic burial sites of the church and the most common offerings were usually bread and lights. In the Northern Basque Country, the fact that the cemetery was attached to the church in many towns fostered a greater tradition of visiting the graves during the year. That may explain why less importance has been given to All Saints and All Souls in the northern territories.
Remembering the dead was also expressed in daily circumstances as the souls were always present in everyday life. The household prayers usually included the dead of the household, the souls in purgatory and if that was the case, the person who had died on that very day.
1 November. All Saints’ Day
It used to be common to take candles and bread to the burial site inside the church. Offerings of that nature were subsequently no longer used or, in some places, were taken, at least as far as the lights were concerned, to the real graves in the cemetery, and were later replaced by flowers. They have therefore undergone a parallel evolution to the one experienced by the offerings during the funeral and on the dates after it.
On All Saints’ Day, a general response was said at the end of high mass in the morning. The funeral mass was not usually said on that day, but the vespers for the dead were said in the evening as they referred to the following day in liturgical terms.
As regards the flowers, the oldest residents of Aria (N) remembered that the custom of taking them to the cemetery began in a few households during the Spanish Civil War, when flowers were left on the grave of a loved one killed at the front. That was not as widespread as now, as that custom began to spread from the 1960s, when people from the village who lived in the city began to send bunches of flowers.
Chrysanthemums were the main choice of flower for All Saints’ Day. The fact they bloom at that time has made them a plant that is traditionally grown at the farmsteads for that purpose; they are associated with those first days of November to such an extent that some people call them the “flower of the dead”.
2 November. Commemoration of the faithful departed or All Souls' Day
This was originally the festivity dedicated to the departed, but it has gradually lost currency and part of its rites have been transferred to the day before. Several of the acts celebrated on this day are also extensions of the ones started on the evening of All Saints.
On that date, in the same way as on the previous day, it was usual to offer bread and lights at the family burial site, along with money for responses. Both days comprised a unit and therefore the evolution seen in the offerings for All Souls Day is similar to the one discussed for All Saints. The same can be said about the visits to the cemeteries along with custom of taking flowers to the graves. The priests say three funeral masses on that day.
Commemoration of the dead during the year
In addition to the first two days of November, there has been the custom in some locations to remember the dead on different dates. It has been relatively common for a mass to be said in memory of the deceased residents on the day of the repetition of the patron saint’s festivity. It should be remembered that the dead in the traditional culture continue to be considered as members of the community and, therefore, they are remembered in the celebrations both at home and in the neighbourhood. In some locations, that mass of the second day of festivities was paid for by the local council, whose members would also attend it.
Caring for the graves
All Saints and All Souls have been marked by the cemeteries and burial sites being tied up on the evening or several days before. This custom is very widespread today but that was not always the case in the Southern Basque Country, but, conversely, it was in the part within France.
The burial sites, regardless of the type, are tidied up by the family to which they belong, and generally by the women. They are also decorated with flowers grown at home, such as chrysanthemums and, as is increasingly more so the case, with bunches of flowers and wreathes bought from the market. They are also sometimes decorated with real or artificial flowers.
Therefore, in those towns where the cemetery gates are usually kept locked, they are opened at a frequency established in each town and particularly on days in the run up to All Saints. In other locations, the key is left at a house arranged beforehand so that any local resident can go to the cemetery whenever they want.
In the towns of the Northern Basque Country, there was the custom to look after and, in some cases, decorate the earth graves that belonged to the family group. In some places, the emphasis was for the graves to be clean of weeds and in others, a rake was used to make drawings in the form of a cross or another symbol on the earth or gravel.
After having weeded the grave, the mound was built up again so that the earth ridge could be seen; the ridge was then flattened and grooves were made according to each person’s taste: zig-zags, waves, forming circle segments, etc. The mound was then decorated with flowers and bay and boxwood branches. In some places, they were also decorated white or black stones or pebbles arranged in a cross or in geometric figures.