All Saints Day
Something a little different today! As Tuesday is the “Day of the Dead” here in Spain – and of course, a Bank Holiday! I thought I might give you a taste of “death in Spain”, actually a chunk from “The Vulture on Paco´s Roof and Other Stories of Everyday Life on the Costa Blanca”. I´m not being either sad or morbid, I promise! Death in Spain – as life – is very different from the way it is in the UK. I went to the internment of a friend some years ago – she was laid to rest in an ossuary, not a cemetery, and the ceremony was a joyous celebration of her life. The only thing that gave me pause was the middle aged English woman standing in front of me. Perhaps she had mistaken the occasion, but she was wearing skin-tight ripped jeans and an off-the shoulder blouse that left little to the imagination. Tatooed between her shoulder blades was the word “Brandy”. This was not, my husband insisted,as I thought, an instruction to the bar man when she fell over, but was probably her name. Oh, well, I takes all sorts ….
“…. 1st November – All Saints Day in the rest of the world, here in Spain “El Dia de los Muertos”. The Day of the Dead. You will be forgiven for thinking that this is a sombre sort of topic for a fiesta, but bear with me.
It is a fiesta. An official holiday. It is the day in the year that the Spanish honour their dead. That´s not to say, of course, that Spain forgets its loved ones who have passed away for the rest of the year, far from it. But today is special. And to me it represents much that is wonderful in Spain, and all that we in the UK seem to have forgotten. More´s the pity.
Let me take a step back.
When you die in England, you are either cremated or buried in a cemetery. Or, if you´re particularly nautical, have your ashes scattered at sea. With me so far? Good. Here in Spain, you can elect to be cremated, but the main option is to have your remains interred in an ossuary. Literally, a bone yard. Don´t go “ugh” and skip the next few paragraphs. It´s worth bearing with me, I promise. You´ve managed to get this far, hang on with me a bit longer!
No matter how many times you visit the Costa Blanca on holiday, the one place you will never have reason to visit (I hope) is a cemetery. Living here, it´s inevitable that you will see friends and acquaintances die; if you will forgive the truly dreadful pun, it´s a fact of life. And a couple of our departed friends have elected to be laid to rest in the cemetery in Pego.
Unusually for me, I find myself searching for words at this point. If you have never seen a Spanish cemetery, and even more so, never attending a ceremony in one, it is very, very difficult to explain – without sound irreverent or flippant – what joyful places they are.
A Spanish cemetery is totally unlike the grim, municipal graveyards in England. Rather, the Spanish cemetery tells a story. It is, quite literally, a village of the dead. An impeccably maintained village, with apartments and flowers and benches and paths and even roads. It is quiet, serene and very lovely. Not sad in the least. Apart from the atmosphere, you may well be asking why it is so different from an English cemetery? Why am I burbling on about it?
Because this is, literally, a village of the dead. It is a bone yard. Here, you are not buried in the ground, but in a niche above ground. Generally, the resting places are three deep, so you will always have somebody to chat to throughout eternity. Each niche bears a marker – generally stone, but sometimes wood. Unlike English gravestones, these don´t just carry the bare details of the person resting behind them, together perhaps with a verse of two from the bible. Oh, no! This is Spain! Each marker gives details of the life of the person behind it; how old they were. How many children and grandchildren they had. Often, what they liked to do. And very frequently, they bear a picture of the occupant as well. You feel as if you actually knew these people.
And the ceremony for placing the dead in their final sleeping place is quite movingly beautiful. It is, literally, a celebration of the life that has gone, not death. None of your dreary black here. People turn up wearing the favorite colors of the deceased; a friend of ours who died a while ago requested we all wear something yellow for her funeral. The whole ossuary looked like an explosion of daffodils. She would have been pleased, I think. There is a ceremony, but a very short one. Generally, the nearest and dearest of the departed says a few words. Everybody else is encouraged to chip in, if they have particular memories. And finally the coffin – usually containing something personal (I´ve given strict instructions to ensure my Kindle goes with me. Not that I intend to die, of course, ever. But I suppose there is a chance it might just happen) is put into place and the marker put temporarily in place.
It might not sound much, but it is. It is moving and beautiful and dignified.
All of which – finally – brings me to El Dia de los Muertos; All Saints Day. The Day of the Dead. On this day, Spanish families visit their dead. They dress up – it an occasion, after all. Go to the ossuary – and I mean the whole family, from the youngest toddler to the oldest grandparents – not so much to pay their respects, as basically to have a good chat to those who have gone ahead. They tell them what has been happening in the family during the year. Pass on all the gossip. Talk amongst themselves about the things Padre used to say. Laugh and enjoy themselves. Often, dogs accompany the group. Why not? They´re family, aren’t they? Inspections are made of grave markers nearby. Did Madre know her new neighbors? That one is much the same age; no doubt they will have plenty to talk about.
About as different from an English visit to the graveyard as you can possibly get. And the point is, the families go to pay their respects not because they feel they have to, but because they want to. And, to my mind, this is why El Dia de los Muertos is so special. It represents so very much that we in England have forgotten. Or perhaps that has just slipped past in the rush to keep going in modern life. Don´t get me wrong; Spain is a modern country. We have a wonderful health service. Road and transport links are excellent. We even have Sky television and internet in the house; how whizzy is that? But – and it´s one of the reasons I never regret moving here – tradition is still respected. The dead are honored because that is the right thing to do. Family life is still at the center of everything. Of course it is, anything else would be unthinkable. Children are expected to go out to restaurants and not only choose what they want to eat, but to enjoy it, and join in with conversations rather than hiding themselves behind electronic gadgets. If you walk into a shop, you are expected to call out “Good morning” to everybody, because that is the polite thing to do.
And all that is part of why it is wonderful that All Saints´ Day is a bank holiday, for both the living and the departed.”