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The wake

Traditional funeral protocol established the duty to watch over the deceased while the corpse remained in the house. This customary practice was emphatically mentioned in numerous places surveyed.

People took it in turns to continuously watch over the deceased from the moment that the shrouded corpse was placed on the bed until it was placed in the coffin to be taken to the church.

This conscientious watching over the deceased day and night, with a marked participation of neighbours and people close to the family, was common practice until the 1970s.

Reciting the rosary at dusk

In many places, particularly in the Southern Basque Country, dusk was when a notable religious act took place in the house of the deceased, which was the reciting of the rosary and when the relatives of the person who had died, all the neighbours and people close to the family would be present. The deep-rootedness and the extent of this practice rather indicate that this act was considered part of the domestic funeral rites.

In fact, it was the central ritual of the wake and was generally so well-attended that the people filled the different rooms of the house. The people surveyed in Gipuzkoa explained that the full 15 decade rosary used to be said then.

The room with the deceased

Once the corpse was shrouded, the place where it was laid out in the house took on a very religious significance. A table covered with a cloth was set up in it as an altar and with items related to Christian beliefs: a cross, a recipient with holy water and a bay branch so the visitors could sprinkle the water on the deceased and an oil lamp or candle, which was kept lit when the body remained in the house.

Laying out the corpse

The way of laying out of the corpse while it was still in the house has changed over time. The oldest way was to put it on the bed. Later on, the corpse was placed in a coffin in the death chamber. Sometime later, the coffin was placed in the most important room of the house in the Southern Basque Country, while it could be in a specially prepared mortuary area in the hallway of the house in the Northern Basque Country.

The coffin

The custom of burying the body in wooden coffins was already widespread by the turn of the 20th century. They were initially homemade, although they were preferably the work of local carpenters. Subsequently, they have been purchased from funeral homes that offer a wide range of types, qualities and finishes.

Trolleys and stretchers

Even though historical documents frequently refer to the use of stretchers or trolleys, the answers of the interviewees —in the majority of places surveyed— indicate that the practice had fallen out of use some time ago or that, in any event, it was restricted to special tasks. Some of them had not heard anything about them. In other cases, these are of modern production and have been used to make it easier to take the coffin to the church or cemetery.

Burning the pallet

In the early part of the 20th century, it was very common in the Basque Country to burn the pallet of the bed in which someone had died.

The burning of the pallet was a task entrusted to the neighbours. Barandiarán suggests that the burning of objects may be a funeral ritual or offering, a symbol of old sacrifices[1]. That ritualised burning had to be performed at the crossroads nearest to the home of the deceased. It was sometimes carried out on the way to the church, eleizbidea, but always near to the house where the death had occurred. When the neighbours set fire to the pallet, they usually said an Our Father or other prayers. In some towns, they sprinkled the bonfire with Holy Water. The ashes that remained were a remainder that someone had died nearby and the passers-by would pray for their soul[2].

Some of the current interviewees explained that the pallets were burned for hygiene reasons or to stop contagious diseases spreading. However, the popular belief persisted that the burning destroyed illnesses that could have been the result of a witch’s curse and that would have remained in the remains of the corn husks of the mattress. This practice stopped when bed springs began to be used in the mattresses. In any event, in some locations, particularly in the northern Basque Country, for some time, a handful of straw continued to be burnt before the house of the deceased, when the funeral returned after the service for the funeral refreshments.

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián, 1970, p. 25.
  2. Bonifacio Echegaray pointed out that this custom was explained in order for passers-by to know from the ashes that there had been a death nearby and pray for the soul of the deceased, adding, that that was not the fundamental reason, but rather that of eradicating evil spirits. “This is yet another case where superstitious habits are justified by a pious Christian application”. See “La vecindad. Relaciones que engendra en el País Vasco” in RIEV, XXIII (1932) p. 25.