This article is offered as a public service and is written in collaboration with reputable local Spanish funeral directors; it is not an advertisement for any such enterprise and have eschewed consulting any of the larger burial enterprises precisely because we did not wish to be pressured; as anywhere else in the Western World, the funeral business is highly competitive. No responsibility whatsoever is assumed by its author, although every effort has been made to offer accurate and up-to-date information. However, this is no more than a guide
Laws, customs and traditions can differ significantly from what our readers are familiar with. Things can and do differ even from place to place in Spain, although modernization of the funeral industry is making things a lot more homogenized. Whatever the case, such situations are difficult enough in familiar surroundings but can get confusing and distressful when one is out of one’s depth, however long one has lived here and however good your Spanish may be: stress very often gets in the way of clarity.
We have stated in the Title that this article refers to Southern Spain. We mean, principally in Andalucía. Customs, traditions, methods, costs and procedures are similar in other regions, but may differ considerably. It is always best to use the services of a reputable local funeral service.
More importantly, there is one common thread throughout this article: be prepared. Death, our own or anyone else’s, is usually something we are reluctant to face up to, yet we can certainly make it easier on ourselves and on our loved ones if we make sensible preparations beforehand. If you know what to do when someone close dies, the process will be so much smoother.
We have not tackled the legal aspects or implications following a death in Spain, as these are best left to a lawyer, but we do urge you to seek advice about wills, inheritance taxes, and so on from a reputable firm.
PROCEDURES TO BE FOLLOWED AT DEATH
If the death happens at home, the first thing to do is to call the nearest Health Centre to communicate the matter so that the doctor on duty can issue a Certificado de Defunción (Death Certificate, of which you should get several certified copies, to be kept safely for further use, as discussed further on). It is not necessary to contact the police as one might in the UK, for instance (if the death is as natural as one can determine; anything else comes later).
Once the death is certified by a physician, the next step is to contact an undertaker (servicio funerario or funeraria), who will in turn communicate with the doctor. At village or small town level, the first call often goes to the undertakers, who take over from there and will contact the emergency services themselves.
The funeral director will come to the home to request the appropriate documentation, both of the deceased and the family member in charge: DNI (National Identity Document, or Documento Nacional de Identidad, in the case of a Spanish national), passport or Tarjeta de Residencia (Residence Permit; now only a Certificado de Residencia is necessary for citizens of EU countries). In cases where there are no family members present, the person who appears to be in charge will be asked for his or her documentation – but be careful, funeral services need to be paid for and in certain circumstances the bill could end up at his or her doorstep, so it is very advisable to make prior arrangements in these matters.
The undertaker will give the doctor these documents, with which the physician will fill in the appropriate death certificate (Certificado de Defunción) and will request the Licencia de Sepultura (Burial Licence) from the local Juzgado de Paz (Justice of the Peace). With the Death Certificate and the Burial Licence in hand, the funeral director will ascertain where the deceased is to be buried (entierro) or cremated (incineración). The body can only be moved from the place of death with this documentation in order, and the only transport allowed is in a properly registered and equipped funeral vehicle.
The deceased must remain in a Tanatorio (Funeral Home) for a minimum of 24 hours before burial or cremation can take place.
In certain cases, an autopsy may be required to determine the cause of death. More on that below.
In the hospital:
The procedure is much the same as when the death occurs at home, with the obvious exception of anyone needing to find a doctor to certify the death.
However, it is becoming the custom in Spain for what in other places is called ‘ambulance chasing’. It is possible the family will be approached by an undertaking service at a very vulnerable moment, so it is advisable, again, to make prior arrangements, even well in advance of any eventuality. If the family has chosen to use their local services, these should be called on as soon as practicable.
Depending on where you live in Spain, there may well be branches of funeral directors from your country of origin. Check your foreign – language newspaper for ads, often found in the Classified sections.
In an accident:
When a death occurs in an accident, or under circumstances other than illness, things become a little more complicated. These will need the intervention of a local Justice of the Peace (Juez de Paz) or Judge on Duty (Juez de Guardia), depending on where and when it happens.
This personage intervenes to carry out a levantamiento de cadáver, an order to move the body once a police investigation has taken place. This could take time depending on circumstances; in any case, it is up to the judge. The order will include directions as to where the deceased is to be taken: a local or provincial Instituto Anatómico Forense (IAM: Forensic Medicine Institute) within the province in which the accident occurred or to a designated tanatorio (funeral home) with the facilities for an autopsy (not all of them have them). For example, if it happened in Algeciras or Tarifa, the body could be ordered all the way to Cádiz as there is no IAM nearby. But be warned: the company called in to move the body will probably not be the funeral directors the family will have planned on, so these must be called in as soon as feasible and appropriate arrangements will be made between the two or more parties involved. Transferring a body between provinces can be expensive.
It is a good idea to have a coffin previously selected (i.e. plan ahead) as the pressure of the moment can be used by a heartless seller to make you pay for a much more elaborate – and therefore much more expensive – coffin than had been planned. Most funeral directors will have a catalogue from which you can make your selection well ahead of time.
Most coffins in Spain carry Christian symbols, usually in the form of a crucifix. If you don’t want that, you can ask to have it removed, or replaced by a different religious symbol (which you might have to provide separately). However boring the repetition might be: prepare ahead.
The price of the funeral will depend on the place of death and the conditions thereof. For instance, you may be offered a corona de flores (wreath) at considerable extra cost – if you don’t want any flowers, just say ‘no, gracias’. Also, if flowers arrive at the tanatorio -and this is very much the custom if, for instance, the deceased worked for a Spanish firm or in an official capacity of any sort- these will have to be transported to the cemetery and an extra vehicle could be needed. Other considerations are the deceased’s wishes: cremation or interment, transport to another country for burial, family members travel time, etc. etc. The details impacting on the final cost are endless, so, again, planning ahead is strongly recommended.
An option is to contract a seguro de deceso (death or funeral insurance), which can be paid monthly and, depending on when it is contracted and other factors, will cover most major costs involved. Your insurance company may well have coverage for such an event and your bank manager may also be able to offer advice. (See above for foreign-language funeral services advertising.)
Another option is to set aside a specific sum in a separate bank account, with instructions to the bank and access to family and/or friends. At this date (July, 2015), a funeral will cost upwards of €4,500.
Most Spanish cemeteries, especially in the South and particularly in small mountain villages, will offer no more than a nicho (literally, a niche, variously called a shelf or a hole-in-the-wall by humorous expats – see photo illustrating this article). Unless prior planning has been made to purchase one (prices are established locally by the Ayuntamiento (town hall) and vary enormously), the family only rents the space. The first five years of interment are usually included in the price of the funeral. After that, one pays the local Ayuntamiento every five years; prices and time limits vary widely from town to town. If, after a decent interval and a letter or two, no-one has shown up to pay for the next period, the nicho will be opened and the remains removed.
In other places burial may well take place in the ground, like most other countries. It is as well to become familiar with the terrain where you live. In other words, be prepared.
Many foreign residents prefer to be buried in their native country. This is an option that must be arranged with the funeraria. Costs vary widely depending on many factors such as: country of destination, method of transport, paperwork involved, etc.
This facility is increasingly available throughout the country. The cost of this option will increase the total by about €1500.
LOCAL CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
While the tradition of having the velatorio (literally, the wake, though not in the same tradition as in Ireland, for example) at home is rapidly dying in favour of the tanatorio, it is still considered ‘bad form’ to leave the deceased unaccompanied; indeed, such a thing is incomprehensible to most Spaniards, especially in rural and Southern settings. The custom probably stems from Jewish (‘sitting Shiva’) and Muslim traditions and rites. If the body is at a tanatorio, friends and relatives will make the effort to express their condolences there, often travelling long distances to ‘keep company’. Most Mediterranean cultures accept this as normal, so it is the deceased family’s decision as to what they want doing.
Even in the most rural settings, where a tanatorio may be too far away, it is now considered unnecessary for friends and neighbours to sit in a silent circle in the front room, where the body is laid out in its coffin. Although there is some timidity regarding leaving the body unaccompanied, the family is often encouraged to take some sustenance and a rest before the morning’s rituals and complexities. Someone will usually volunteer to stay with the deceased ‘for company’.
Following on the above, the funeral cortege begins wherever the deceased has been laying (hospital, tanatorio, home) and is accompanied to the church if religious services are planned, then on to the burial or cremation site.
Most local funerals include a religious service (misa, or Mass), though not always. This tradition may well have become so to give women a chance to offer their sympathies to the family and not be obliged to go to the cemetery, which is where the men usually attend to that duty. It is perfectly acceptable to say you do not want a religious ceremony of any kind. If you do, though, and the deceased is not Roman Catholic, the family, maybe the funeral director, will have to procure the services of a cleric of the appropriate religion.
Fortunately, hiring a host of ‘wailers’ (plañideras) is no longer necessary, but the custom remained in the rural South until the 1970s in certain parts. The more you could hire – and they did set up a terrific din – the better your family, and thus the deceased’s, would be thought of.
Many villages and towns have a cemetery close to their castles. These are invariably at the top of a hill, which makes carrying a casket to the cemetery very difficult, to the point that it was not unusual for the widow to miss the burial altogether, though not the religious service at a church in the village. However, this, too, is changing rapidly thanks to the advent of tanatorios, which are usually built as close to a new cemetery as possible, though transport to it will probably require a vehicle.
At the cemetery itself, in the case of a burial without using the tanatorio facilities, the custom is to lay the coffin down close to the entrance. The family stands behind the coffin and those wishing to offer their condolence will pass by to shake hands and mutter a few words.
The coffin will then be carried -by male friends and relatives- to the nicho, where it is placed and then closed by the cemetery caretaker or employee. Anyone wishing to, will accompany the coffin to the final resting place and stand around until this little ceremony is over.
A word of warning: The enterrador (‘burier’ or caretaker/employee) puts a slab of concrete over the entrance and, bucket of cement and trowel in hand, proceeds to cement the slab into place. This could be distressing, though probably no more so than lowering a coffin into a grave – but it is different.
It is also considered ‘very bad form’ to have a ‘party’ after the funeral. Northern cultures call this a wake, of course, but it is completely incomprehensible at local, mainly rural, level. It is advised, therefore, to hold a wake in private, preferably not at the place of death nor at his or her ‘local’. We have tried for many years to explain that a wake is a celebration of the deceased’s life rather than a party per se, but it remains almost anathema to most of the population. This might have something to do with them seeing a bunch of highly imbibed guiris (pejorative term for foreigners) emerging from the deceased’s house a few hours after his or her burial. An evident sign of great disrespect in the eyes of the locals.
Nevertheless, neighbours and friends may well turn up with food and sometimes drink during the night/s of vigil prior to the burial, and would probably feel very put out if it is rejected, however politely. The food and drink must be shared with the giver. This custom is also on the decline due to the relatively recent presence of the tanatorio, where there is usually a handy bar at which it is perfectly alright to take a break without any reproof whatsoever.
Much toing and froing from the coffin’s temporary quarters to the bar will be observed. However, the coffin will be in a cool room, separated by a glass wall (if required or requested) from the nearest members of the family, who are expected to remain there, where they can be found to receive condolences from visitors. It is okay to ply them with drink, providing this essentially non-alcoholic. A drunken widow/er at the burial would create a scandal of mighty proportions.
Local custom has the family leaving for home from the cemetery as soon as the burial is over. The home will be pretty much ‘closed down’ for the following two or three days, only family and close friends feeling free to turn up unannounced. After that, when family members emerge into the street, they are likely to be approached by those who have been unable to attend the service or burial and words of condolence will be expressed.
The correct words can be anything from “le acompaño” (I accompany you — in your feelings) to “lo siento” (I’m sorry -to hear about, etc.). No other words than “muchas gracias” (many thanks) are necessary from the receiver, unless the person expressing their condolence is well known (neighbours, business colleagues, etc.) to the family, in which case a short conversation on the circumstances might ensue, though if you don’t have much Spanish, this will probably not be pushed. Such expressions can go on for some time after the event and can come as a surprise or even an unwelcome reminder of them, but they are meant well and teeth should be gritted.
People might be interested to know that there is an Inscripción en el Registro de Voluntades Vitales Anticipadas de Andalucía, that is to say a form of Living Will. It is 10 pages long and goes into a fair bit of detail; if your Spanish is not good enough (this is a legal document), take advice from a lawyer or a gestoría.
This document is available from the Consejería de Salud de Andalucía, for example (this is the Health Department of Andalucía, but every region will probably have their own). First enquiries might be made at your local Centro de Salud (Health Centre), maybe even online, depending where you live. Ask for Formulario (form) No. 001007/AO3 and AO2 and AO4 in Andalucía.
No funeral necessary
It is perfectly possible to have no funeral at all, especially if death occurs in a hospital and burial is to be carried out other than in Spain … or cremation is requested.
‘Dignified Death’ Law – Article published on June 15, 2009
The Junta de Andalucía approved by a majority vote what has become known as the ‘Dignified Death’ Law, after over a year of debate and adjustments to its wording. The new law, a pioneering one in Spain, regulates the rights of patients at the latter stages of their lives, as well as the obligations of medical personnel in both public and private centres.
One of the main points of the law is the right of patients to reject treatment, which, although present in various other national and regional laws, has never been clearly regulated.
The wording also includes the following (translated): “A terminal patient has the right to receive palliative sedation when necessary.”
As to judicial coverage, medical personnel attending to terminal patients are obliged to remove or to not establish life support systems that “only contribute to prolonging a clinical circumstance that has no realistic expectations of improvement.” The law establishes that doctors must obtain similar opinions from at least two members of their profession, as well as to check the registry of Living Wills before making a decision. It also obliges respect for the patient’s “values, beliefs and preferences” and doctors must “abstain from imposing” their own moral or religious beliefs.
- This article is offered as a guide and is subject to revision.
- No responsibility of any kind is assumed by its author.
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© Alberto Bullrich 2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015 (incl. revisions). ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No reproduction of this work may be carried out by any reproduction method whatsoever without the author’s written permission.