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When the death occurs in the urban environment, there is a series of facilities that expedite the handling of the deceased. In that regard, undertakers are and have been in charge of preparing the corpse to be viewed and to prepare and facilitate the space (funeral parlour) where the family will receive relatives and friends. The aim is to facilitate the difficult time affecting the family and turn the death into something rational and aseptically controlled.

Compared to those “standardised” procedures, when the death takes place in rural areas, the behaviour is more traditional and attitudes are perpetuated, to a great extent, that are more inherent to a pre-industrial society, which is what we have first and foremost recorded through the surveys and bibliography.

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Death and act of closing the eyelids

Once the death of a relative has been established using the standard procedures, which in the past were to pass a candle over the eyes, pass a lit match under the nose, see if the person was breathing by putting a mirror over their mouth or touching the feet, a series of resources come into play that are usually hidden and which prove to be effective in such critical moments as this.

The steps are taken nearly mechanically in traditional Basque society after the death. The first thing is to check that the person is really dead and one of the people present, usually a woman, closes the eyes of the deceased “to stop them calling someone else”.

Washing and shrouding

In Basque society, it was the neighbours, auzokideak, who would gather around the family when a death occurred. Nowadays, neighbours reach out in such circumstances but tentatively “out of respect and not to get in the way”. When their presence is requested, nobody refuses.

In general, the shrouding was the work of women. The nearest or first women neighbour would often require the help of a man or other female neighbour to move and prepare the corpse properly.

Families can now be said to entrust the shrouding to funeral or health professionals, but the neighbours will step up when their help is needed.

Ways of washing the corpse

In general, the washing of the corpse was and continues to be cursory; it involves cleaning those parts of the body where the traces of the death throes are most noticeable: face, hands and feet. The corpse is only washed completely, usually with soap and water, in those cases where the dying person has “soiled” themselves at the end, libratzen danian (Azkaine-L).

Towels or clean cloths, zapiak, were usually used to wash the body. This operation was normally performed on the floor, on a sheet, while the men placed a board on the bed or dismantled the bedstead if needed in order to set up the open casket.

All of this, along with the shrouding, had to be carried out “while warm” otherwise it was very difficult.

Objects that accompany the corpse

Pious symbols

After the corpse has been stripped of any personal adornment, the rosary is the final touch to the grave clothes, held in the hands crossed on the chest, and, sometimes, a cross. The general custom has been to put a rosary on women and a cross on men.

A very widespread custom was to place on the body the scapular or medal of the congregation or brotherhood to which the deceased had belonged. The most frequent were the scapulars of El Carmen, of the Third Franciscan Order, the medals of the Marian congregants and the Daughters of Mary sashes.

Death indulgences

In the Southern Basque Country, the “death indulgences”, which could be bought in all the parishes along with the Bull of the Crusade, were of great religious importance in the past[1]. The Church thus granted a plenary indulgence for the soul of the decease for whom one was sought. The person seeking the indulgence had to confess and commune within eight days.

In Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, the family of the deceased generally collected the indulgence forms (summaries) from the parish and placed them on a table in the funeral room. The people who visited, if they wanted to, took one and placed it on the coffin and left the relevant amount of money on the tray that was then given to the church. In Navarre, the family bought the death indulgences from the parish office and gave them directly to the people in charge of closing the coffin to place them in it.

Secular objects

Apart for the aforementioned religious objects, if the deceased was a young woman or a small child, the corpse was adorned with flowers, either in their hands, or arrange around the body or even as a garland on their head.

Burning herbs

The old practice of burning fragrant herbs or cleaning the room with certain herbs was related to the viewing of the corpse.

Burning sugar to avoid unpleasant smells was very common as it was cheaper than incense.

  1. The Bull of the Crusade was a papal bull granted to the Kingdom of Spain in the 16th century. It was proclaimed annually in the parishes and was bought by means of alms given in proportion to income. The holder was the beneficiary of different graces and favours. These included being exempted from the general law of fasting and absence and the application of a plenary indulgence in case of death. The latter was known popularly as the “death indulgence”.