Saturday, November 19, 2011

Drop-dead gorgeous?

The other day I did something I've been thinking about doing since we moved to the Egia neighborhood - I went to the cemetary at the top of the hill.  Reason being, it's been sunny for an endless amount of days and quite warm too, and since it is mid-November I know this summerish weather isn't going to last much longer, so if I wanted to see the cemetary in sunlight, my days were numbered.

Named Polloe, the cemetary has been open for 133 years and is the biggest in Donostia.  We drive past it every day and the massive stone crosses peep out from the fenced cemetary, cold stone against the blue sky, which has always made me curious to visit.  From my first step through the massive iron gates, I could easily say that it is the most beautiful cemetary I have ever been to.  Here in Spain (also Italy, Portugal and some other European countries), the gravesites are spectacular.  So strikingly different from a US resting place, I thought I would share a bit with you about the whole process of death here - from the actual passing to these massive graves, so you can see how this tradition changes so drastically between countries.
Upon death, the local police need to be identified, unless the person died in a hospital, in which case it is done by the staff there.  The police notify the forensic judge who comes to the location of the passing and authorizes the removal of the body.  An autopsy is only needed if there is foul play.  The person's doctor must also be notified to issue the death certificate.  Once the papework from the police is signed, you immediatley become tied to a local Funeral Director and begin planning the funeral - which normally takes place a mere 24 hours after the person's final exit.

The Funeral Home can quickly walk you through the options, which include:  viewings/funerals, gravestones, flowers/wreaths, paperwork and documentation, cremation or burial, obituaries and vehicles for family members.  Normally people contact the funeral home within one hour of passing to get this set up as fast as possible.  There are also cases when the family has pre-paid the funeral services.  On average, a Spanish funeral costs around 2,500€ ($3,300).

From the moment of the death, the body is kept at the funeral home and the family is by thier side - every moment until the service.  The service is normally held at a church and the whole world comes.  If it was someone from your small village that you barely knew, if it was your friend's boyfriend's grandfather, if it was someone who worked in your office, you go.  The services are normally packed and then after the family and close friends while only close family is invited to pass by the coffin and give thier last goodbyes.  After this step, the coffin leaves the church and everyone stays inside as it exits.  Directly after, condolences are given to the family.  Being such a big event, it is stressed that you don't linger with the family but instead give a few heartfelt words, a hug and move on.  However, you are not supposed to leave until the hearse and the relatives have left.

The family accompanies their loved one to the cemetary and there the coffin isn't lowered into the ground, but instead into a niche area on their family's plot.  These niches can be rented for X number of years and when the rental period is up, the bodies are moved to a common grave.  Also unlike home, more than one person is buried in one spot.  I saw gravestones with atleast 10 people in the same 'grave' niche area.  It's sort of like an apartment for dead people, with monthly/yearly rent and all.  The headstones are decorated with either the person's favorite flower or flowers in his favorite color.  The national death flowers are yellor or white chrysanthemums.  Soon after a funeral banquet will take place - at a close relative's home or even the deceased himself.  People normally bring a dish each - some sort of comfort food.

The deceased's resting place becomes thier new residence - and not only because that is where they will remain for years to come, but also because of the Spanish's cemetaries.  After the 19th century, the boom of the borgeouis city life transferred to the cemetaries too - in the sense of layout.  This particular (Polloe) and many other cemetaries in Spain are laid out in a large city style way - wide avenues (with the most important graves) and smaller 'roads' connecting them.  At the entrance of the cemetary are the biggest and best headstones and as you continue along they get less and less adorned and extravagant.  Some families don't have a headstone for thier loves ones, but instead an entire vault - some of which you see here.  Some almost the size of a small chapel, each has a little sitting area where family members can sit and give thier respects inside thier family's tomb.  The ones in this cemetary were decorated with elaborate carvings, stained glass windows and marble.  They are amazing and although mostly of the vaults/crypts were decorated with gothic touches, the fact that I was there are sunset was not scary at all.  It was amazing.

Most of the graves had flowers on them, even some maybe left over from November 1st - here celebrated as All Saint's Day.  A National holdiay, it is similar to our Memorial Day, but is for anyone who has passed.  Traditionally, families get together and go to the gravesites of thier loved ones to adorn them with flowers.  This year on this date we were coming back from the Pyrenees and as we passed the cemetary we saw the parking lot overflowing with flower vendors probably making a killing on bouquets and wreaths.  

Maybe creepy at midnight, this cemetary as sunset was astounding.  It's very interesting to see how different cultures care for thier deceased.  With these ornate headstones you can see that passed relatives still hold an important role in the famliy here.  While I have never attended a funeral or visited a known person's grave (and hopefully won't any time soon), I still find beauty in the rows and rows of tombstones.