Last week my Spanish grandmother-in-law
died; she was 96. I had got to know her
over the past 8 years; and grown to love her. She was always so friendly,
loving and had a cheeky sense of humour.
When I first came to Spain, armed only with
a smile and practically no Spanish, I used to enjoy my time ‘chatting’ with her
– some of my first conversations in Spanish. At family gatherings, like my
first Christmas in Spain, she spoke slowly and clearly and I understood the essence
of what she was saying and in turn she made me feel understood! From that day
we became friends.
Over the years I have seen her health
deteriorate and this month she died. At 96 years old this wasn’t a tragedy but
in a loving family, where she has been cared for 24/7, this was a loss that was
profoundly felt by all the family and many, many friends. Real sadness was felt
by very many people.
I am writing about this, as this was my
first true experience of a Spanish funeral – quite intense. I’ve been to other
funerals here, but never involved with one so close to me. I think it gives an
interesting insight into the Andalusian culture.
I am not sure if it is the Islamic history,
but here in the south of Spain it is customary to lay the deceased to rest
within 24 hours.
Grandma died with Rafa by her bedside.
Within moments loved ones and close friends were contacted and the house soon
filled with people, and emotion. For me this was remarkable as typically in the
UK this moment, shortly after a loved one has died, would be such a private
time, but here the loss is shared; reflecting the open culture of the Andalusian.
Grandma was then taken to the Tanatorio, (Funeral
Home), where she was placed in a polished wooden coffin. A large private room
was dedicated to family and friends and in the corner, in a small refrigerated
room with a huge glass window was the coffin, with candles each side (typically
in Spain the body is not embalmed).
Now began the Wake, a vigil that was to
continue throughout the night to the following day at noon, when the Funeral
Mass was held.
Loved ones and family congregated at the
Funeral Home from the moment Grandma’s coffin arrived. The friends and family
were there remembering, comforting the immediate family – it was a truly shared
experience and one that was totally spontaneous and not at all structured. In
the UK I am used to the classic funeral, planned over days or a week, with
obituaries in the papers, formal notifications, giving time for loved ones and
relatives to arrive. The final funeral, a formal affair with mourners wearing
Here funerals, although they typically
feature a formal, structured Mass, are informal in terms of how people can
first for me the swiftness with which things progressed was overwhelming; the
emotion, the people; the speed at which the funeral was arranged. Yet there was
a genuine love in everything and in retrospect I think the speed was a blessing
– a healthy way to put someone to rest and then move on, in mourning with life.
During the late afternoon I nipped out for
a snack and a drink in a nearby bar with some family members. Sandwiches were
ordered for those at the Wake.
Late that night I left and stayed with at
brother- in-laws for the night leaving behind the immediate family who stayed
all night in the funeral home; catching a few hours sleep on the chairs or
The next morning, friends and relatives
returned and at noon the Mass was held, and then the coffin loaded into a
hearse and all of us walked slowly behind the car all the way to the cemetery.
Many people wore mauve and purple, a colour associated with the church here and
traditionally with funerals – luckily I fitted in, as I wore a mauve shirt with
my dark grey suit. But many mourners wore informal clothes – or arrived for the
service straight from work – there wasn’t the formality of a UK funeral –
people just wanted to share the moment and what people wore wasn’t important.
In my experience this is true in Andalusian
funerals – always informal; sometimes with people walking in late, as soon as
they escaped from work or other commitments.
That morning, in the dazzling autumn
Andalusian Ronda sunlight, the coffin was interned in the family ‘niche’. These
are above ground – lined one above the other; sort of long, lineal pigeon holes
slightly larger than a coffin. (You can see some in my All Saints Day blog
Earlier in the day grandma’s husband’s
modest remains that had occupied the niche for many years before hand were
removed (later to be buried) to make way for the coffin, as is common practice
here in Spain.
Once the coffin was slid in, a headstone is
placed over the opening and then sealed, whilst the mourners look on in total
silence. Later a carved headstone will be added.
After the internment the immediate family
returned home. We had a meal; shared some wine and a few beers and remembered
grandma. It was quiet, reserved; a sense of relief. Earlier, my mother in law was sitting in
grandma’s empty room, sobbing – the house seemed empty.
An intense 24 hours – and an extraordinary
insight into an emotional part of local culture.