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Christian rites of the passage from life to death

The moments preceding death are of particular importance. Death was traditionally considered as the end of a way of life and the start of another; it is, therefore, a passage, a transit, and as such is surrounded by specific precautions that led to practices and rites that have to be observed faithfully[1].

The rites prior to death include the Eucharist and Anointing sacraments, which the Catholic Church prescribes, along with Penitence, for all Catholics who are seriously ill.

The Eucharist given to the dying person is called the Viaticum, which originally meant “food for the journey". This refers to the path that the deceased has to travel to reach life after death.


When both sacraments were given to the ill person in a single act, they were known as the Last Rites (Últimos Sacramentos in Spanish and Derniers Sacrements in French).

In Basque, the most common term to refer to them was Eleizakoak, Elizakoak, which was used practically throughout the southern Basque-speaking area (lying within Spain).

In the Northern Basque Country the term Sakramenduak (Azken Sakramenduak, Erien Sakramendua or Hilen Sakramendua) (Lekunberri-BN, Beskoitze, Sara-L, Urdiñarbe-Z) is more widespread. The formula Ostia Saindua (Lekunberri-BN) has also been found as a metonymy of this Sacrament.

Receiving the Last Rites

It was very usual for the priest to visit the sick person ahead of time to prepare them to receive those sacraments and to hear their confession. During this visit, the day and time of the Viaticum and Anointing would be agreed with the sick person and with the family members: the Last Rites were usually received by the dying person when they still had full use of their faculties. In some cases, the sick person would ask for the priest in order for the former to make their peace with God and be given spiritual assistance.

Notifying the priest and doctor

When a person is seriously ill, the doctor is called to help with the pain and the priest to give spiritual assistance.

Sending a messenger to notify the doctor and the priest was common practice when the rural roads were wagon trails and the quickest way to reach a town or village was to send a fast runner along the paths. In the second half of this century, the number of tarmac roads suitable for motor vehicles increased and from the 1970s, the telephone was widely used.

Preparing the room of the sick person

As has been found in all the places surveyed, the Viaticum used to be performed with great solemnity. The priest would wear his vestment and be accompanied by the altar servers or the sexton. As they left the church, the bell would toll to announce the Viaticum to the whole parish. In the towns and villages with a concentrated population, local residents carrying candles would accompany the Sacrament to the house of the sick person.

In turn, the house was decked out and, specifically, a small altar was set up in the room of the sick person. In the hamlets and places with a scattered population, the residents would go to the house of the dying person and wait with candles to welcome the priest bringing the blessed Communion.


The practice of taking with solemnity the Viaticum to the sick started to decline in the middle of the century, as can be seen in the Izurdiaga, Viana (N) and Izpura (BN) surveys. In the majority of places, it lasted for several years more, but had completely disappeared in the Basque Country by the 1970s.

However, the aspects linked to the old custom have left a deep mark in the minds of the people surveyed. The contributions on this point gathered in the places surveyed indicate that a sick person receiving the Viaticum used to be a major event in local life.

“The whole village” would take part in the cortege in settlements with a concentrated population.

There was a standard model for the procession with the Viaticum that was as follows: the bells were rung to call the local residents to the Church. The Viaticum procession would set off from there. The participants carried candles and the local brotherhoods and their banners would sometimes be there. Once at the sick person's home, the cortege would remain outside, while the priest, family members and closest friends would enter the room. Once the ill person had received the Viaticum, the procession would return to the Church.

There was a different model in the areas and hamlets with a scattered population. The ritual to receive the Viaticum at the sick person's house was particularly important here. The head of the household, either the man or woman, and holding lit candles, would go to the front door to greet the priest bringing the Sacrament, Gure Jauna, and kneel before him. The priest would then be taken to the sick person's room.


Fewer people attended when the Anointing took place without the Viaticum and were limited to the members of the family and some neighbours.

In Ezpeize-Ündüreiñe (Z), only the members of the family and the odd neighbour were present and the children were kept out of the room. In Azkaine (L), it was mainly women – the female relatives and neighbours – who attended.

During the Anointing, the act of baring the feet of the sick so the priest could anoint them was particularly important in the past. A family member of the household, preferably a woman, was in charge of this act.

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas Funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián, 1970, p. 9.