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The corpse during the obsequies

According to the Roman Ritual, the central act of the obsequies was and continues to be the mass with the body of the deceased in church.

During the 19th century, a series of civil provisions banned, on hygiene grounds, the corpses from being taken into the church for the obsequies with the corpse present[1].

In many places, the coffin was placed in the porch before the church door, while the funeral cortege went inside for the Office for the Dead and the funeral mass. At the end of the service, the priest followed by the cortege went out to the porch to administer the absolution of the dead. The cortege then made its way to the cemetery where the burial took place.

In some locations, a different practice to the one described above was implemented given the ban on funeral rites with the corpse. The corpse was taken to the porch of the parish church. The priest would there say a response and administered solemn absolution to the deceased; the cortege or part of it would then go to the graveyard for the burial and then immediately returned to the church for the funeral to be held. In a few locations, it was reported that the corpse was taken directly from the home to the cemetery and the funeral mass was then said.

Arrangement of the family mourners in church

The funeral cortege went into the church in the same order as in the procession. During the 20th century, a difference has to be made between two clearly different periods regarding the arrangement of the mourners in the church, along with other transition situations down to the present.

The previous period was conditioned by the very layout of the church for religious functions. The benches or tribunes were for men and the chairs were occupied by women at family burials. This period was when the corpse remained in the porch during the obsequies or had been directly taken to the cemetery for burial. The male mourners sat on the bench or benches reserved for this purpose, known as “mourning benches”, which was the last of the row of benches from the presbytery; the mourning benches were subsequently those nearest the alter. In the Basque Country within France, the male mourners took their relevant place in the church's tribunes; they later sat lower down in the front benches.

In the nave, generally at the back, the women in the part of the Basque Country within Spain sat in seats with kneelers, each of them at the burial site for their homestead; therefore, the women of the female mounters were at their own. In the part within France, the female mourners were in the front along with the coffin.

.The rest of the congregation sit in different parts of the church. Until recently, they observed the costume of men and women in separate areas, each person within their group and occupying their place and category within it.

Regarding the Basque Country within France, Barandiarán provided a general description of the arrangement of the cortege in the church. Once the procession reached the parish church, the men were in the church's galleries during the obsequies and the women stayed on the ground floor beside the coffin. The coffin was placed on a table in the centre of the church, near the communion rail where it remained during the funeral rites[2].

As the burial sites were removed[3] and the seats replaced by benches in the naves, both the male and female family mourners began to sit on the benches closest to the altar. Generally the women were on one side and the men on the other, according to the prevailing tradition in each location. Both groups began to mix much later and nowadays the male and females family mourners generally sit together on both sides of the front benches.

Between the first and second period, there was a transition in some towns where there was a collective burial site after the individual ones had disappeared.

  1. Boletín Oficial de la Provincia de Vizcaya. No. 126. Bilbao, 20 October 1849.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. El mundo en la mente popular vasca. Volume IV. San Sebastián: 1966, pp. 67-68.
  3. Anastasio ARRINDA. Euskalerria eta Eriotza. Tolosa: 1974, pp. 83-84.