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It was common practice for the dead to be buried inside the church until the change to the law in the 19th century. Therefore, each homestead had a burial place, i.e., a burial site allocated inside the church's nave. There are still some ancient burial sites under the boarding covering the naves of the church in many locations. Those burials led to practices that were of great importance in the religiosity of the town and which have endured nearly to the present.

Sometime later, when the burials were in cemeteries, the homesteads continued to have the place allocated that had previously been the real burial site and it then became the symbolic burial site. The women of the homestead would be there during the religious services and it was there where the offerings were made.

The symbolic burial site was a stretch of paving, which measured approximately between two metres long and one or half a metre wide.

In some locations, the burial site was recognised by its rectangular shape that was marked by a number (Mélida and San Martín de Unx-N) or by the first letters of the family's surnames or the number of the house where they lived (Mendiola-A). In Berriz (B), before the restoration of the church, which happened shortly before 1923, the burial sites could be made out as the covers were made out of wood and the rest of the paving was stone.

Validity of the symbolic burial sites

Household burial site

Many of the surveys showed that each family kept their household burial site inside the church until the 1970s. In 1971, Arrinda noted that the burial sites were known in all of the 25 parish churches surveyed in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Navarra, except for three churches that had been built more recently, and in many of them, in the three provinces, the tradition still remained of activating the burial sites and making offerings there[1].

In the Basque Country, the abode of the living and that of the dead have always been an inseparable domain. As Echegaray pointed out, people always considered the burial site as something more than a sitting place and the Church agreed to each family having a certain place allocated in the temple, thus creating a right that did not imply ownership but is also perfectly transferable[2].

Funeral items

The material items used for the burial site were the cloth or linen on which the torch stand was placed, or the candlesticks used for the lights, the baskets with the offerings and the kneelers which the women would use. This meant that the burial sites in fact were very similar to funeral altars, where offerings of lights and bread were made to their forefathers and responses were said in suffrage of their souls.

It can be seen from the data provided by the surveys that the social category of a homestead or family was also reflected in the funeral items. In some locations, the wealthy families used the torch stand to offer lights and poorer ones the basket. The torch stand was usually more or less decorated and lavish depending on the family. The fabric used for the cloths or linen and lace, the metal and craftwork of the candlesticks, along with the kneelers clearly marked the financial standing of its owners.

Activation of the burial site

Even though the household burial site was permanently in the nave of the church, the women of the family would activate it on the death of a member of the home both during the funeral obsequies and the triddums, novenas and ensuing religious acts during the period of mourning. The activation consisted of lighting the burial site, making offerings and saying the responses there, prior to the arrangement of the funeral items.

This task was preferably entrusted to the lady of the house and, failing that, to any of the women of the household. If a women of the family could not go to the burial site, a female neighbour or other woman close to the burial site would usually take charge of it. In some locations, the tradition was also reported that, at least occasionally, the serora, a beata (an unmarried woman who was not a nun, but who quested after holiness by taking vows of chastity and often of poverty), or the woman in charge of the church would be in charge of looking after the burial sites. A legacy would sometimes be left in the will to cover the cost of the care and upkeep of the burial site. The testator would therefore leave a stipend to his/her daughters, nieces or granddaughters with the proviso of his/her will being fulfilled.

Taking possession of the burial site

The lady of the house was always tasked with presiding over the household burial site and making the offerings there, as has already being discussed. That duty used to appear in the marriage settlements where, in the lifetime of the parents, the running of the household was transferred to the new married couple who set up there.

The transfer also had its ritual expression in terms of the homestead's burial site. Azkue cited a custom that used to be very widespread in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and which was even found in the Valle de Roncal in Navarre:

“On the feast day immediately after the wedding, the former housewife (etxekoandre zaharra) would take her daughter-in-law (emazte ezkonberria) to the family’s burial site. The mother-in-law would kiss the stole (of the priest) and give two pounds of bread. The daughter-in-law would take the offering and also say responses”[3].

She would thus take possession of the household’s burial site, was connected to its ancestors and joined her husband's family. From then onwards, both women would preside together the funeral rites of the burial site or jarleku of the church in the same way they would run the house together. If there were no etxekoandre zaharra, it would be the etxekoandre berria who presided over the burial site even when the daughters of the former were still living in the household.

  1. Anastasio ARRINDA. Euskalerria eta eriotza. Tolosa: 1974, pp. 83-84.
  2. Bonifacio de ECHEGARAY. “Significación jurídica de algunos ritos funerarios del País Vasco” in RIEV, XVI (1925) p. 191.
  3. Resurrección M.ª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Volume l. Madrid:, 1935, p. 277.