De Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia
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Attending the burial act

The people attending the funeral usually go to the cemetery to be present at the act of burial or, as is usually said, to “pay their last respects” to the deceased. But that has not always been the case. In many places in the past, few people were present at the burial and they also did not having to be direct relatives of the deceased. This lack of people at the burial in the cemetery may have reflected the greater importance that was generally given to the burial in the church.

It should be noted that for centuries and until the 19th century, the burials were inside the churches and from then onwards, for hygiene reasons, the had to be at the cemeteries on the outskirts of the towns. When that happened, the symbolic burial site that represented the old family one in the church continued to prevail, and the burial in the cemetery was considered secondary in importance; in fact, the cemetery was only visited at a large number of locations in early November and that was not even the custom until relatively recently.

Elsewhere only the men and not the women would typically go to the cemetery. That could be due to the fact that the women play a key role in the activation of the symbolic burial site in the church and therefore had to remain there. However, the custom was also reported that the women closest to the deceased would not even go to the church.

It seems reasonable to think that much of the social mores to do with going to the cemetery depended on its location with respect to the church and varied as the graveyards were moved to the outskirts of the towns.

In the past, the funeral cortege in some places would go directly from the home of the deceased to the cemetery to bury the corpse and the funeral would then be held in the parish church or even the following day. In that regard, it could be said that the burial consisted of two clearly different parts, as is sometimes the case today. The act of burial on the one hand and the funeral rites on the other. The body was buried in a simple ceremony attended by the closest relatives and some neighbours or friends. It took place after the legally established period from when the death occurred. The obsequies were held the next day or in the following days, with a larger number of relatives, neighbours and friends present.

Sometime later, when it was not allowed to bring the corpse into the church, the coffin would be left in the porch while the obsequies were held inside and the burial would take place afterwards.

From the 1960s onwards, the two acts, burial and funeral rites, began to be merged and the cortege went from the home of the deceased to the church were the funeral with the corpse present. The procession would then make its way from the church to the cemetery for the burial.

The act of burial has now become a social event where the whole family is present, even though there are cases where only the direct members of the family go to the cemetery.

Rituals in the cemetery

Retrieval of religious symbols

The custom in several of the surveyed locations was to remove the adornments and religious symbols decorating the coffin before burying it or placing in the funerary niche. The coffin lid was also sometimes lifted up and items such as the rosary or crucifix placed on the corpse during the shrouding were removed.

Throwing a handful of earth

Once the coffin had been lowered into the grave and before burying the coffin, the custom is to take a handful of earth, kiss it and throw it on the coffin. That is very widespread both in space and time and there are not too many variations. José Iñigo Irigoyen explained in that regard that “some date this custom back to the times when the tombs were formed by covering the corpses with stones. Those stones were because of the superstitious belief that the dead do not want to go alone […] each person at the burial placed a stone to which a sacrificial meaning was given and was considered to represent the spirit of the living, who was thus accompanying the deceased”[1].

The interment

The most common expression to described the interment is “to bury” the corpse and in Basque, they also used lur eman or lurperatu; in Arberatze-Zilhekoa (BN) lurrez kukutu.

In some towns, there was and remains the role of the gravedigger whose role, as the very name indicates, has been to dig the graves and then bury the corpses. This task was carried out elsewhere by the neighbours of the deceased, sometimes exclusively by the first neighbours, of the youths of the town, the coffin bearers and occasionally by the relatives. This work is now usually done by the gravediggers and sometimes by the undertaker’s employees.

Orientation of the tomb

Since time immemorial, it has been the custom that burials were not at random, but rather followed certain orientations. The custom that could already be seen in the dolmens remained until relatively recently, but in the majority of locations has changed with the construction of the new cemeteries since the second half of the last century. That was even more so in large towns where the burials are affected by problems of space.

Prior to the burial of the corpse, a number of precautions were taken with respect to its orientation while being taken from the home of the deceased to the church and from there to the cemetery; while it remained in the house, as it was taken out from there and taken in and brought out of the church.

The corpse was laid in the burial sport so that the head was next to the cross. When it is placed in a niche, there is a new option: placing it with the feet at the bottom and the head next to the cover or vice versa. In the cemetery of Beasain (G), the corpse is nowadays placed with the feet first and the head next to the cover, but it is the opposite way round in Murchante (N).

  1. José IÑIGO IRIGOYEN. Folklore alavés. Vitoria: pp. 38-39.