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The bearers

The bearers were the people who carried the stretchers or pushed the platforms on which the body was taken from the house to the church and to the cemetery to be buried. By extension, and in more modern times, this same name was applied to the bearers of the coffin or casket which has replaced the old transport method.

In the past, according to the information gathered in the surveyed locations, there was a widespread custom that the neighbours of the home of the deceased would carry the stretcher or coffin. In those places with a strong tradition of brotherhoods, if the deceased was the member of one of them, the bearers of the stretchers were his fellow brothers. If the deceased owned several properties, it was common for the tenants to be tasked with bearing the corpse.

In Álava, according to tradition, the bearers were the youths of the neighbourhood or place where the deceased lived. They were also in charge of preparing and distributing the “charitable handout”. The surveys found that the custom of the coffin bearers being married or single neighbours according to the civil status of the deceased was common in Bizkaia. In the Northern Basque Country[1], the coffin bearers, hilketariak, were also neighbours of the house where the person had died. In general, the first (closest) neighbour, lehenauzoa, was chosen and he had to carry out this mission with care so as not to leave out anyone who should have been involved.

With the passing of time, the old custom of the neighbours being the coffin bearers, even though it has not completely disappeared, has given way to the relatives and friends of the deceased being the ones tasked with carrying the corpse.

This has always been entrusted to men or youths, never to women. The only exception to this general rule was when a child had died, in which case the bearers in the Northern Basque Country were always of the same sex as the deceased. In other locations, it was also discovered that girls helped to move the remains of a young girl.

There is evidence that in certain places in the 19th century, the body was moved by professionals to whom the family paid a fee. More recently, the custom of people expressly dedicated to transporting the coffin was found in some places.

There was also the tradition in rural areas that it was more or less the same people tasked with moving the coffin. In return, their services were paid in one way or another and there were also given refreshments.

The corpse is normally moved feet first. The coffin was nearly always placed in the same way in the church. However, the bodies of priests were carried head forwards and they were placed in the church with their faces looking towards the altar.

The body was and is still generally moved in two phases. The first was the journey from the house of the deceased directly to the cemetery or to the porch where the corpse would be left in the past during the service or, nowadays, inside the church are the funerals are with the deceased present. The second part is when the body is taken from the church or porch to the cemetery.

All the transfers of the corpse used to be on foot. The bearers would carry the stretcher or the coffin on a platform. It was also moved on a wagon or in a cart from some places that were difficult to access. There have long been boxes or coffins transported on platforms, held by the handles with the arms stretched out or in the most common way which is carrying them on the shoulders.

In the charters and in concentrated neighbourhoods of the hamlets or other population centres, the practice of entrusting the tasks relating to the burial to undertakers dates back to the 1950s. The duties include transporting the corpse in the undertaker’s van. In rural areas, these habits took longer to be introduced and were not even established until as recently as the 1980s.

Nowadays, the funeral home performs all the necessary journeys in the hearse. Only the short distance from the home to the hearse, from the door of the church to inside, and at the end of the ceremony back to the hearse and in the cemetery to place the body in the grave. In those cases, the coffin is carried by relatives, friends or neighbours on their shoulders. Even though they are the exception, there are still towns where the tradition is still preserved of walking from the house to the church and to the cemetery.

The number of bearers was usually four. There would be six or eight bearers in the case of certain unfavourable circumstances, such as a long distance to be covered, the journey complicated by the state of the tracks or the excessive weight of the deceased. Points would then be established for the shift change. A prayer would be said or it would just be the opportunity for the funeral cortege and, particularly, all the bearers to rest.

  1. Michel DUVERT. “Données ethnographiques sur le vécu traditionnel de la mort en Pays basque-nord” in Munibe, XLII (1990) p. 481.