End of life traditions are a topic that is extremely personal and emotionally loaded. However, since it is a milepost we all have to pass, I wanted to share a few observations on these rituals here in southern Spain.
Regretfully or not, my husband and I have been to more funerals in the handful years we have lived in Andalucía than in the rest of our lives combined. This could be partly due to the fact that we moved here from a North American city that catered more to the working population than to new-borns and nearly deads. It could also be that we are getting on a bit ourselves…
I was born in a country that is primarily Lutheran (read agnostic/heathen), and spent most of my adult life in multicultural Canada, which in my circles meant that people were wannabe Buddhists or quasi Hindus. It was therefore quite a change to become a resident of an almost exclusively Catholic and at times very devout rural town. While funeral rites in northern climates are becoming increasingly liberal, with virtually free choice when it comes to location, entertainment, as well as what is being said and by whom, in Ronda funerals are still done much the same way as in the distant past. Things might have changed in the northern parts of the country, but here the rituals of passing are still a very tradition-bound affair.
Granted, rural Andalusian towns like ours tend to be tradition bound all around. Here, life’s progression is still measured by the celebrations of saints and virgins. In our barrio (neighbourhood), which is like a village it itself, we have donkeys and horses regularly clippety-clopping by and sheep grazing up on the hillside. Even though it is a traditional family, working class neighbourhood, a significant proportion of our neighbours are octogenarians and nonagenarians. Just crossing the local Plaza San Francisco square where the old men stand and gossip day in and day out, we are reminded of the inevitable circle of life.
We have become accustomed to hearing the sombre chime of the mourning or luto bells before a requiem mass in the 15-century church up the street. Likewise, we have started following the funeral notices tacked up above the counter at the local grocery store, cramped between farm eggs ads and pre-Christmas Iberian ham basket lotto draws. Every time an ambulance stops at the top of our dead-end street my heart starts racing, fearing the time has come for one of our ageing neighbours. Thankfully, they are still hanging in there, but we know with all probability that there will be more funeral masses ahead.
Before I continue, I want it to be clear. I am not a member of any faith and have no training in Catholicism whatsoever. My following observations are purely that – comments from an outsider inside point of view, who by mercy of friendship has been invited into the locals’ private circles in their most vulnerable and emotionally heightened times. I share these observations with outmost respect and love for our friends, their families and their lost ones. I am here as a cultural observer, that is all.
The first thing that struck me about rural Spanish funeral customs was the progression of the events. In my native Norway, a funeral might happen weeks or months after the actual death, depending on the family, the venue, the availability of musicians, as well as when a relative can manage to come back from trekking in Bhutan. It is a practical matter more than anything. Here, on the other hand, things happen very quickly. Once someone passes, within hours the body is usually transferred to one of the town’s two, always busy, Funeral Homes or Tanatorios.
I would guess that the proceeding steps traditionally happened in the privacy of people’s homes, but a few things have changed for modern day convenience.
The Tanatorio is where everything seems to happen – where family keep vigil and grieve, where respect is shown and friends come and say their last goodbyes, where the mass is held and from where the casket is brought to the final resting place. And all this usually takes only a couple of days. It might surprise some, being acquainted with the infamous Spanish mañana culture, that the process of parting is done so hurriedly. As far as I have detected and I might be poorly informed, there is no official 48-hour time constraint, which would explain the urgency at which the deceased is transferred to the final resting place. But then again, tradition is always the strongest determiner.
While a North American Funeral Parlour might opt for a discrete non-denominational name such as ‘Eternal Rest’, the names of the Tanatorios in the Spanish south tend to have religious overtones, like our Tanatorio El Niño Jesús (The Baby Jesus Funeral Home). Approaching one of these Tanatorios, there is almost always an enclave of people outside. Naturally, this is where the smokers congregate, but it is also where the family of the deceased can escape the endless row of condoling neighbours, friends, distant relatives and unknown acquaintances.
Inside the Tanatorio, there is usually an open entrance hall and a reception area and possibly even a cafeteria. There is always a waiting room, a chapel, as well as two or three separate intestinal rooms for the families of the latest departed. In the latter rooms, the closest relations to the decseased will sit on pews facing a glassed-in chamber where the coffin sits, closed or open, depending on ones wishes.
I am not completely sure what it the actual reason for sitting for hours facing ones recently departed loved ones. From what I have observed, it only accentuates the tragedy, ripping up a yet-to-be healed wound. It seems torturous on the families, especially after what one might call an untimely death (Are there any timely ones?), when someone has died far too young. I do not believe the custom helps the family start the grieving process any sooner, rather the opposite. Maybe this tradition meant to make us face our own mortality, admit our sins and rectify our earthly ways?
As we dressed up in black to go to show our respect for our first rondeño funeral, we were surprised to note that we were the only ones to do so. At least here in town, there seems to be no tradition of sombre funeral attire. In my hometown, it would be simply unthinkable to show up to a funeral in leopard tights or any bright and gay colours, but not here. Everybody wears normal street clothing. Ones physical appearance therefore doesn’t seem to be part of the otherwise very tradition bound affair.
Some time during the first or the following day, a funeral mass will be held. This can happen in the Tanatorio itself or in one of the many churches in town. It probably depends on the family history and whether they belong to certain religious brotherhoods. In most cases, the mass appears to be done in the chapel of the Funeral Parlour, with one mass happening after another, depending on how many departed are being served that day. In the dozens of funerals we have attended, there have been very slight deviations in the requiem mass. The liturgy is always the same, except the name of the departed being swapped out, and the sermon always includes a communion. The process seems to be much the same for every passing soul. The chapel is usually full, with mourners coming and going during the sermon. As expected, there will always be the inevitable phone ringing (ring tone: Despacito or some cheery Latino Salsa) Someone two rows behind us will fumble desperately to get their phone, not to turn it off mind you, but to answer it, telling the caller that they cannot talk because they are in an entierro. (…)
The mass proceeds at a rather hurried pace, giving a sense that there is a real urgency to get the soul into sacred ground. For someone like myself, who barely remember ‘Our Father’, it used to surprise me that everybody around me knew the mass from beginning to end. All as one mouths along with the prayers and confessions, crossing themselves, standing, kneeling and sitting at the right moments, even those who are neither regular church goes nor creyentes (believers).
After the last word is said, the family of the departed will gather behind the coffin, while the crowds file towards the alter to show their respect, make the sign of the cross while bowing to the coffin, sometimes touching it, or sending an invisible nod of compassion to the mourning family. Once all have gone past, the process of moving the coffin to the cemetery begins. Traditionally, the chapel and the graveyard would be situated side by side, which is almost the case in Ronda. While the coffin would have been carried to the cemetery, nowadays it is usually transported in a special funeral vehicle. Still, the most important part of the tradition remains. The near family, then other mourners and finally curious bystanders will follow the coffin to the cemetery in a slow walking procession, halting all traffic in their wake. In smaller villages, this will include basically the entire town. Life stops and every business close, as all the residents will walk along behind the coffin, showing their last respect to the very end. To me as an outsider, it is a particularly heart-felt tradition, which one can only hope will be kept for generations to come.
The internment into consecrated ground happens immediately afterwards. For most Catholics, certainly rondeños, this means placement into a vertical wall cubicle. In Ronda’s Cementerio de San Lorenzo, there are thousands upon thousands of these cubicles, stacked four or five layers high. Though this might give one an impression of a morbid sub-development, most graves are usually decorated and given an individual touch.
Last week, as we followed the procession of a recently parted town fellow, two workers in coveralls were waiting on a cherry-picker type lift. In a matter of minutes, while the family watched, the coffin was raised and deposited into the niche. The last thing that went in, barely fitting, was a wreath. Then, without music, words or any ceremony, the workers began to cement a lid onto the opening, completing the process by leaning a pre-made marble plaque that was to be added later. Finally, the cherry picker was lowered and the workers walked off with a silent nod, leaving the mourning family in tears. One of the ageing daughters of the departed fainted at this point, while two doctors in the crowd sprang forward to help. In fact, she got more attention than her passed-on mother, aged 94. This is Andalucía after all, where passions run high and drama or sometimes melodrama is part of every day life.
And so, from cradle to grave, we follow our rondeño friends and neighbours, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses, lighting candles for the sick and ailing, though not yet confessing our sins or crossing ourselves as we pass roadside shrines. Some things are better left to the locals.