Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Spanish Approach to Burial

A few weeks ago, I attended my first Spanish funeral. It's the norm here that burial takes place within 48 hours. This is a custom which presumably has a lot to do with the heat of the South and almost certainly dates back hundreds of years. If there's to be a Requiem Mass, this takes place a week or two after the burial.

As far as I'm aware, there's no such animal as a Funeral Director in Spain. Nor a Funeral Home, where the body can reside until the funeral takes place. In the UK the latter is usually 10 to 14 days after the death of the individual. Naturally, Spaniards find this as remarkable was we find their burial within 48 hours. Especially as the latter makes it impossible for far-flung loved ones to get to the funeral.

Here in Spain, the body is take to a Tanatorio, something about which I'd heard quite a bit but never experienced. To foreigners, they're a bit of a shock, even if you're forewarned about them.

A town may have just the one Tanatorio, like Pontevedra, or it may have several, as in Santiago de Compostela. They're usually large, single storey buildings located near a cemetery and the one I attended was no exception. This is a description of the place and what unfolded there:-


The Tanatorio was located in a bleak industrial park and seemed to be one of 2 or 3 in the area. The parking lot was large and only half-full. Despite this, a couple of drivers had left their cars on the pavement. Presumably because it was raining. So far, so Spanish.

On entering, you're struck by how much the place resembles an airport departure hall.

You're confronted by a reception desk on your right and the entrance to a pretty utilitarian chapel on your left. Then come toilets and a café on your right and a flower shop on your left. The café wasn't open but there was a drinks machine against one wall.

Hanging from the ceiling is a large TV, giving details of who is in each of seven rooms to the left of the long, wide corridor stretching ahead of you. I'm told that the resemblance to an airport departure lounge can be reinforced by tannoy announcements of who's coming and going. But in our case there was only the TV screen, rather like those that tell you which carousel your luggage is on.

Each of the rooms is about 20 metres square and has its own toilets, and a couple of tasteful pictures on the walls. There's a glass-sided cubicle in one corner in which the coffin and flowers are housed and illuminated at the time advertised on the TV. This is usually one hour before the coffin is taken out either to the cemetery, to the chapel or to the crematorium.

Outside each room is a book of condolences on a small pedestal, next to a small notice ("tombstone") of who's in the room.

It's not at all unusual for family members to spend 24 hours in the room allocated to their deceased relative. Indeed, some see this as compulsory.

In our case, the coffin and flowers were scheduled to be illuminated from 1pm to 2pm, when it would be taken to the chapel for three readings and three pieces of music.

There's little by way of formality on these occasions in Spain and no solemnity. Chatting among friends and relations is the norm, usually in the corridor rather than the rooms. Both the corridor and the room have sofas and armchairs. Essentially, it's a social occasion.

The dress code is relaxed. It's not uncommon for both men and women to wear jeans and in summer women don't hesitate to wear short skirts and low-cut tops. Neither suits nor ties are obligatory for men. There is almost no black worn. Northern Europeans like me who did so were conspicuous in our customary mourning clothes. Even the four attendants wore blue shirts and ties.

The coffin was moved at 2pm to the chapel. This bore no sign whatsoever of any religion, except for what looked like a (closed) tabernacle on one wall. After readings and music, the coffin was moved from the aisle of the chapel to the crematorium. No one accompanied it but one woman touched it as it left and another leant and kissed it.

Then we moved out of the chapel, for the taking of farewells - always a long process in Spain. I saw that a crucifix had been re-attached to the wall and the 'tabernacle' had been opened to reveal a picture of the Virgin Mary. A simple altar had also be laid in the middle of the dais, ready for the next Catholic ceremony.


Perry said...


Funerals I've been to recently have also become informal. I've seen jeans & a shirt. Our crematoriums are also less brutal than the unit you described.

Slots are 20 minutes maximum & most mourners are eager to get to the pub, so no hanging around in embarrassed clusters.

In, out, upward & onward. They cost too much money though!



Bill said...

I have so far been to only two funeral services in Spain, both of British people (one was actually a memorial service as the funeral had taken place privately a week before). Both in Mazarron, Murcia Region.

The more recent was about 3 weeks ago and it was a 'regular' funeral service, prior to the cremation, in one of the two Tanatorios in the town. I have often seen Spanish people hanging around outside the building on previous occasions and until I discovered what it was I always thought it was some kind of government office (perhaps social security) as people always seemed to be hanging around outside in casual clothes, chatting or smoking. Most people at the service I attended were in casual/smart clothes (me included, as I do not keep funeral attire in Spain as I do not live there, although spend about 5 months a year there), but a few of the men who are permanently resident did have dark suits and black ties. The service was about 10 days after the death, which had allowed the 3 sons and their wives/girlfriends to travel out to be with their mother.

In any case the service I attended there recently was just like similar recent crematorium services I have been to in the UK (in my case in northern Scotland). The entrance was very plain, but the room where the service was conducted was quite nice, with a large crucifix with a very realistic-looking Jesus nailed to it; I'm not a Christian, but it was all perfectly nice. In this area there is an "English Funeral Director" who, apart from doing all the administrative chores on behalf of the family, also arranges flowers, a minister appropriate to the family's wishes and generally organises the whole event. After the service (a few readings, including one from one of the deceased's sons, a few hymns - basically, just as it would be in the UK), the wife and her family left the room first and awaited as we all filed out to offer condolences to the family; there was a collection dish to take donations to a designated charity).

I thought the whole event was as tasteful as similar events in the UK.

The earlier event I attended was a memorial service; it took place in the meeting room of a local multi-denominational religious group, and was overseen by the same "English Funeral Director" and a preacher appropriate to the widow's wishes.

Incidentally, on the wearing of "black"; the last funeral service I attended in the UK was one I organised myself on behalf of my brother and myself for our late mother - neither of us wore black clothes or ties, although a few of the mourners did, which was fair enough, although we had indicated "no black" in notices - it's really all about what people are comfortable with, so whilst we were both very happy with our non-black suits, ties and in my case a non-black tweed overcoat, we were also perfectly happy and understood that for some of the mourners wearing black was what made them comfortable.

Comfort obviously includes Spanish people and their rather different ideas of what is appropriate when attending funerals. To each his/her own - we all pass this way once only and I would not presume to comment.

I also in earlier years attended a couple of funerals in the Middle East for Arabs; they too traditionally have the burial very rapidly after the death. You may recall when the Princess of Wales died in a car-crash in Paris, arrangements were made for her companion Dodi Fayed to have his funeral very rapidly, within 24 hours according to Egyptian/Arab tradition.

Live and let live is what I say.

Colin Davies said...

Thanks, Perry, Interesting links.

Thanks, Bill, for all that. I think the key to the longer wait in the first case was the English Funeral director who did things the way they're done back home.

Live and let live is essentially the Spanish national motto.

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