XIII. OFFERING BEARERS IN THE CORTEGE
According to the field research, it was common for the members of the funeral cortege to be relatives of the deceased and neighbours bearing offerings. The women would carry bread or wax, the men candles or torches, and everyone lights. The children would often carry candles at the front of the cortege, as would the brethren and relatives that walked alongside the coffin. The women carried spiral rolls of wax attached to a board for the family grave and the men torches that, after the ceremony, were left in the church for the parish services. This tradition continued in many places until the 1950s and 1960s. The offerings in the past were animals, parts of animals or other meats and they have been replaced by branches of flowers or wreaths over time.
In addition to the general offerings mentioned above, there would a specific offering that in some way symbolised the home of the deceased. In some locations, candelabras, candles and other elements of the symbolic burial site belonging to the family would be carried there. Sometimes, the offering would be at the head of the funeral cortege, even before the parish cross, as can be seen from the very name for the bread carried at the front. In other cases, it was located next to the coffin or immediately after it. There would be an offering-bearer at the front of the cortege and another at the end in some places. That use of that figure began to decline some time ago and generally fell into disuse around the 1936 Spanish Civil War, although the odd example can be found until the 1950s and 1960s when it disappeared.
In Lower Navarre and Zuberoa, it was common for the female first neighbour to carry the wax in a basket from the home of the deceased and sometimes from her own and those of the homes of the female first neighbours. She would walk beside the woman of the home at the head of the female mourners and would wear a mantaleta (cape) in Lower Navarre.
On arriving at the church, she placed the basket before the owner of the farmstead.
This special offering, along with the others, was placed in the church at the symbolic burial site of the home of the deceased.
There was the widespread custom that the bearer of the light or of the “burial site” was tasked with looking after the lights of the family burial site of the deceased during the funeral obsequies.
The bread offering-bearer
.First of all, there are the locations where it was reported that the offering consisted of bread or bread or wax. Apparently, the bread offering was replaced by lights in the form of candles or by elements that made up the symbolic “burial site”, before finally money began to be used.
In Meñaka (B), a neighbour, known as aurreogije, bearer of the bread, would lead the cortege. She had to be married or single, according to the civil status of the deceased. If the deceased was recently baptised, the bearer was usually the godmother. She carried a basket on her arm covered by a small cloth, in which a bread roll used to be placed and a ten-cent coin from the start of the century, and which was equivalent to the price of a response.
The light offering-bearer
The offering-bearer played the same role in the cortege, regardless of whether she was carrying bread or lights. Some places where lights were offered are mentioned below. In the part of the Basque Country falling within Spain, the offering-bearer led or was in a significant part of the cortege. It is likely that she used to also lead the cortege in the part of the Basque Country in France. That was the case in Iholdi (BN), where the female first neighbour of the house of the deceased, dressed in a cape and holding a candle in her hand, would lead out the cortege. Nowadays, the people surveyed remembered that the offering-bearer played a key role among the female mourners.
Cortege animal offerings in the past
In the past, an animal, usually a ram or ox, which would be at the head of the cortege or next to the coffin, would frequently be the main offering, along with other offerings. In certain places, the animal would be taken into the church to be offered to the offertory of the mass. In the more recent past, the animal would usually be tied up to the porch or near to the church and would then be redeemed on payment of a sum of money. Sometime, even though the animal was not part of the cortege, it would be offered during the funeral. The financial standing of the relatives of the deceased and the type of funeral determined whether the type of animal offered was an ox, ram or lamb. Animal parts or other meats were also sometime offered.
The field work of our surveys provided little information about this old custom of taking animals or meat to be offered during the obsequies. We only came across isolated accounts from the oldest people surveyed in just a few places and they had heard from other people and, therefore, had become rather blurred.
Floral wreaths and flowers in the funeral cortege
It can be seen from the data gathered in the surveyed towns that flowers or wreaths being part of the funeral cortege was not common. By contrast, the custom of decorating the graves in the cemetery was very widespread. There are places where it was reported that it is an old tradition but, in those cases, they took along wild flowers or ones grown from the household’s vegetable gardens and bunches made by the neighbours. In the Basque Country falling within France, there was the established custom of carrying pearl wreaths bought from a shop. There was also a period when affluent families made or rented wreaths made out of artificial flowers.
The appearance in the funeral cortege of floral wreathes and bunches of flowers bought from stores was much later. It first began in the cities and, gradually, extended to small locations. It often went hand in hand with the introduction of undertakers who would arrange everything to do with the corpse.
- Manuel de MARCAIDA. "Creencias y ritos funerarios en Meñaka (Bizkaya)", in AEF, III (1923) p. 34.
- Jean HARITSCHELHAR. “Coutumes funéraires à Iholdy (Basse-Navarre)” in Bulletin du Musée Basque. Nº37 (1967) p. 112, Note 7.