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Interment has been the widespread choice when laying the remains of the dead to rest in the cultural area of which the Basque Country is part. Another procedure has begun to be noted in recent years: cremation, but the number of families opting for it is still small and even though the ashes are sometimes scattered, the most normal thing is burial[1].

Burial close to the church meant that area in front of the church was known as the churchyard. That term continued to used when referring to the parish meetings that the neighbours held before the church and they were said to be held in its churchyard.

For many centuries, the internment of the body was in burial sites within the churches and when that was banned, there was a great popular resistance to burial in cemeteries. When the latter was finally imposed, the burial sites in the church continued to prevail, even though they were symbolic, over the real one in the cemetery and the majority of the rituals linked to the former lasted. Only in relatively recent times did the cemetery gain in importance from the ritual perspective as the burial sites in the churches were stopped. The ban on burying within the churches required new cemeteries to be created or reuse the graveyards near the churches. The latter case, which was the main one in the Northern Basque Country, has contributed to people regularly visiting the graveyard, the contrary to what happened in the Southern Basque Coutry.

Internment on the homestead

Until the first quarter of the 20th century, the practice continued in some places to bury stillborn babies or those who died without being baptized under the eaves of the house or in a plot next to it. It was also reported that the corpses of those children were buried on the homestead grounds.

In Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, the infant was buried around the house between its wall and the gutter line[2].

According to the latest accounts gathered in some field surveys in the part of the Basque Country within France, it was the custom to bury stillborn children under the eaves of the roof of the house until the mid 20th century. That plot of land is known in the part within France as andereen baratzea[3].

Internment next to the church

Burials around the church dates back to the earliest times and was prior to the internment inside it. The desire to ensure effective protections against the danger of the desecration of the grave or, better still, the desire to benefit beyond the grave with the intercession of the Saints, led to the practice of burying the dead next to the tomb of an illustrious martyr. In the 4th century, the ad sanctos[4] burial was already common, even though it was reserved for the wealthy dead.

During the Early Middle Ages (7th and 8th centuries), there were very few people in the Iberian Peninsula who enjoyed the privilege to be buried within the churches. When that happened, it was due to the church being funded by the monarchy itself or by a famous family (patrons). During that time, the cemeteries were found around the churches, next to its walls.

A transition progressively occurred in the customs that ended up with the burials being moved from the outside to the inside of the churches: “Over time, the ruling classes then demanded the same right for themselves and soon the same favour was granted to the bishops and priests and even to the simple faithful. The documents of different councils confirmed that until the 12th century, burial in the churches was only reserved for bishops, abbots, dignis presbyteris, laicis fidelibus omnino pietate commendabilibus. From the pontificate of Gregory IX (1227-1241), greater freedom was given to bury, without distinction, laypersons in the church”[5].

Once the custom of interments inside had become widespread, the nearby cemetery continued to be used in many places as poorer people were buried there whose families could not pay the privilege to be buried within the church.

Internment next to the church

From the 12th century onwards, the general trend was to be buried in churches, particularly in those of the religious (Cluiniacs and Cistercians) and mendicant (Franciscans, etc.) orders. People competed to be buried in the monastery and also in parish churches.

Once the custom had spread, not only did people want to be buried in the holiest place, the church, but also as close to the high altar and the most important areas of worship. The competition to ensure well-positioned burial sites led to quite a few problems and disputes.

This custom was very deep-rooted to the point that the dying left clear written instructions in their last wills and testaments how and where they had to be buried. In turn, that meant that the floor layout of the churches was adjusted to the number of homes and therefore of burial sites. That is why larger churches were needed as the population grew. When a new church was built, after demolishing the old one, the burial sites would have to be reorganised again. Even though, in principle, the layout of the former church was respected, the nouveau riche bid in the burial site actions for the best place, i.e., the closest to the altar.

  1. The first cremation in the crematorium of Bilbao’s municipal cemetery, located in Derio (Bizkaia), was in 1991. The number of cremations then steadily increased to the point that they accounted for half the interments by 1994. It was therefore inevitable that where there are large human agglomerations and lack of space for burials, which then makes interments more expensive, cremation would spread. However, the resistance of the relatives first would have to be overcome, particularly when the ashes are not buried, as they lose the point of reference to visit, pray and remember the dead. In the same way as many of the changes to the funeral rituals, cremation has begun in urban areas. Cremation of corpses also facilitated the transport over longer distances.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián: 1970, p. 39.
  3. Michel DUVERT. “La Maison Basque, un espace sacré” in Etxea ou La Maison Basque. Saint Jean de Luz: 1979, pp. 20-21.
  4. Mario RIGHETTI. Historia de la Liturgia. Volume l. Madrid: 1955, p. 972.
  5. Eugeniusz FRANKOWSKI. Estelas discoideas de la Península Ibérica. Madrid: 1989, p. 223.