XII. ATTIRE IN THE FUNERAL CORTEGE
In the past, tradition and custom imposed strict rules about the garments to be worn by the people in the funeral cortege, particularly the official mourners. The first requirement was to be dressed in mourning, in other words, wearing black or dark colours as an expression of sorrow.
The male official mourners used to wear white shirts with black buttons and a black suit, often their wedding one, or their best clothes. They would wear a large cape, which was nearly always black, on top. This had been a long-standing practice and continued to be the custom until the early decades of the 20th century and until the Spanish Civil War of 1936 in some places. In the Northern Basque Country, the tradition began to fall into disuse nearly everywhere after World War I and disappeared in the 1940s.
Even though the use of capes by the members of the cortege was widespread, according to the information gathered, it became a garment that was reserved for the official mourners or certain dignitaries. When a death occurred at a home, another household would lend the garment if the deceased’s family did not own one. There are places where owning a cape was a sign of economic clout.
Women, in the past, also wore their best black clothes and with large black cloaks. The custom of borrowing garments from the neighbouring households was usual among women.
There were people who did not have the appropriate clothes for the occasion or the resources or possibility to obtain and were forced to dye the garments they had. The black suit was completed with black stockings, shoes and gloves. The female official mourners would usually be completely covered and even wore veils or shawls over their face. The people interviewed in the Northern Basque Country graphically expressed that: "Il ne faut pas voir de couleur de chair” (no part of the skin should be left visible).
In the 1920s, 30s or 40s, depending on the different locations, there was a shift in the way of dressing for burials and funerals. Men stopped wearing the large capes and the garments worn were a white shirt, dark black suit, a black time and black shoes. There was the very widespread custom of wearing a black armband on the left sleeve of the jacket and, in winter, on the coat or raincoat. They also wore small black fabric triangles sewn onto one of the angles lapel of the jacket and black buttons and rosettes on the buttonholes. In the northern Basque Country, specific garments were used such as the small cape called a taulerra and the sheepskin coat worn by shepherd known as a zamarra or xamarra.
It was a widespread custom for men to be bareheaded, holding their berets, during the procession of the funeral cortege. It seems that the origin of this tradition is a superstition down to the fear of the hazards involved in transporting the corpses.
The female official mourners, from the aforementioned decades, continued to wear black. The garments consisted of black dresses, jackets, skirts, gloves, stockings and shoes. The use of different types of shawls was widespread and which initially were longer and thicker and gradually became smaller in size. In some locations, the widow and other women belonging to the household of the deceased did not take part in the funeral cortege. In the northern Basque Country, the mantaleta and the kaputxina were the two garments worn by the female official mourners. The female neighbours would be in charge of preparing the funeral garments, particularly for the women, in that territory.
When burying children, aingeruak, people would not wear mourning as children were considered to be pure beings, innocent souls who were going directly to heaven.
In the same way that occupying a more or less preferential place in the cortege was down to the family kinship or neighbour status, the same happened with the intensity of the mourning. This was more notable among the members of the household family group, etxekoak, than in the case of other relatives, neighbours or friends.
The people attending the burials who were not part of the official mourners or the group of honour, who were there as an “obligation”, were less subject to the formalities of what to wear. However, in some locations, particularly in rural areas, neighbours and other people at the funeral often wore black with similar garments to the people directly linked to the deceased. This situation particularly affected those who had a specific neighbourhood relationship or the status of first neighbours, lehenauzoak.
The priests, who could be one or several according to the category of the funeral, wore the ornaments of the rite. The priest or priests who led the cortege wore black rain capes with golden embroidering. The other priests and altar boys wore white rochets.
In around the 1960s, 70s and 80s depending on the locations, a new shift in the way of dressing was noted. The route of the funeral cortege itself, in general, has shrunk considerably and except for the people very close to the deceased, the other people there no longer dress in a particular way for what was previously considered a solemn ceremony.
Today, the displays of mourning worn by the family of the deceased are very subdued and restricted exclusively to the closest relatives. If anything, the male official mourners wear dark colours with a black tie and the women dress in mourning or half-mourning. Even these residual displays of the old ways of the external expression of sorrow during the funerals are frequently restricted to adults and old people as young people dress informally and do not wear mourning. The remaining participants in the funeral cortege do not follow a specific way of dressing but rather the most absolute discretion prevails.
- Resurrección M.ª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Volume I. Madrid, 1935, p. 223. She noted that the same custom existed in some places in Germany. The claim that the origin is a superstition was made by Paul Sartori.
- Michel DUVERT. “Données ethnographiques sur le vécu traditionnel de la mort en Pays basque-nord” in Munibe, XLII (1990) p. 481.