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The composition of the funeral cortege

In the broadest sense, the funeral cortege includes everyone attending a burial. In the strictest sense, the cortege comprises the elements and people in front of the corpse, the coffin carried by the bearers, the official mourners, relatives and neighbours as applicable, and the other people with ties to the deceased taking part in the cortege and the ceremonies organised as part of the funeral formalities.

In many of the locations surveyed, it was found that fewer people attended the funeral ceremonies in the past than nowadays. The number of people, excluding those in the deceased’s immediate circle, was much more restricted than today. The nearest relatives, neighbours and just a handful of other people attended. It was found in some places that the women most directly affected due to their relationship with the deceased, such as the widow and daughters, did not attend the burial or the funeral ceremonies. The presence of female non-relatives was sometimes not as great as nowadays. Young people and children would only go to the burials of youths or children of the same age, and which the men did not usually attended.

In more recent times, according to social mores and because funerals are usually held in the afternoons, they have become mass displays to express the affection or esteem felt by the people attending for the deceased or their family. Turnout is usually conditioned by different circumstances such as whether or not the deceased is young, their popular standing, the number of members of the family, whether or not the death took place in tragic circumstances, if the deceased was well-known, etc.

The cortege, in principle, was formed at the home of deceased, from which it left for the church, or it went first to the cemetery and after the burial to the church. As has been described in the removal of the corpse, a small cortege made of the closest neighbours and relatives walked to an agreed point of the location that could be different depending on the neighbourhood from which deceased came. Other members of the cortege and the ecclesiastical chapter would be waiting there. This stop was used by the people to change clothes and shoes. From then onwards, the cortege with all solemnity started or would set off again to the parish. There would be people who joined the cortege along the route, particularly at the stops made at the crossroads or, finally, in the urban centre and the door of the church.

In the past, the organisation of the cortege and the order that each element must have there were rigid, but today the cortege is more diverse and is even chaotic at times. The neighbours had a key place in the cortege in many locations. They sometimes headed it with precedence over the relatives, at other times they shared the lead of the cortege and, circumstantially, the neighbours would replace them in places where the blood relatives did not attend[1]. Such was their importance in the cortege that in the village of Aduna in Gipuzkoa they said: Leenbizi auzua, gero, progun tokatzen zaiona (first, the neighbour; then whichever mourner who followed)[2].

Throughout the Basque Country[3], a distinction was widely made between two groups in the funeral cortege. Those who went as an “obligation”, who were from the household of the deceased or had special ties with it, and those who went out of “charity”, who did not belong to the household, but who had ties with its dwellers at another social level, where the common factor was Christian charity.

In the past, the existence of brotherhoods and religious associations for funeral purposes or post-mortem assistance was very common. The brothers nominated for the role or the stewards took part with their standards and labara and the remaining brothers carried torches or candles. They also carried the coffin in some locations. Young women and spinsters belonged to congregations and religious associations played a similar role to the brotherhoods by accompanying the coffin along the route of the cortege. If the deceased had been well known, an ecclesiastical or civil authority, the municipal council members or its band would accompany the coffin on its final journey.

No differences worth mentioning were noted regarding whether the deceased was male or female. Some specific features were noted in the case of the burial of children. It was common practice that, as a funeral cortege passed by, people stopped, on ne croise pas un mort, and make the sign of the cross, aitaren egin, or prayed. The men would take their hat off, gapelua kentzen zuten.

Neighbours have played, and to some extent continue to play, an more eminent role in rural than in urban areas, in all aspects related both to the funeral formalities and to the help provided to the family to offset the situation created by the loss of the deceased.

As regards clothing, the official mourners would rigorously be dressed in strict mourning, which was often worn by most of the people attending the funeral ceremonies. This requirement has been relaxed with the passing of time and cracks have now appeared in that such widespread feeling of sorrow being also identified with the external appearance.

There are locations where there has been, and still is, the custom of sending off the coffin on the “limes” or edge of the town, when after the religious ceremony with the body present it is taken to be buried in the cemetery. At a specific point, which is often the early border of the town, there is a stop to say farewell and send off the deceased, after saying several prayers. The corpse, followed by just a few people, is taken to the cemetery and the others return to the town.

It is obvious that in the past, light in the form of tapers and candles and torches was an essential part of the removal of the corpse, in the cortege and during the funeral ceremonies. The use of wreathes and bunches of flowers was introduced and became widespread from the 1960s and 1970s. Even when flowers have, exceptionally, been a tradition to a certain extent in some towns, carrying fresh cut flowers in the funeral cortege is relatively recent. In the past, particularly in the case of wealthy families, wreathes with artificial flowers would be rented.

  1. Bonifacio de ECHEGARAY. “La vecindad. Relaciones que engendra en el País Vasco” in RIEV, XXIII (1932) p. 26.
  2. AEF, III (1923) p. 74.
  3. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas Funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián, 1970, p. 35.