Thursday, September 14, 2023

On the way to the cemetery

When I was a boy, just the other day, life in the Canary Islands was still comparatively primitive.

While Puerto de la Cruz, on the island of Tenerife, was beginning to take shape as a package holiday resort at the end of the 1950s, there were still two main classes of inhabitant, the rich and the poor, the landowner and the peasant. In between, there were the sharecroppers and the fishermen.


The banana plantations between the old Martiánez Hotel and the beach had been cleared 

There was vast private wealth in land, and in many rural areas inhabitants lived a very simple kind of life, serving the sometimes feudal landowner and sharing the crops the land produced. They were the poor. This was until General Franco’s regime began implementing the Limited Rent Housing Law of 1954 and the Urban Leases Law of 1964, a social housing plan which saw the building of over four million affordable houses for the poorer classes throughout Spain, including the Canary Islands. Most owners managed to pay them off within ten years. As a result, many of the peasants’ traditional stone cottages dotted around the landscape were abandoned for the comfortable state-built housing estates. It also saw many peasants abandon thousands of agricultural terraces for more prosperous wages in town.


Some of those abandoned terraces, like these in the El Río gorge, are being recovered

I grew up in the 1960s and my father once owned a finca in the hills above Tacoronte. I still have vivid memories of half-naked children hanging onto the skirts of bare-footed mothers who peeped out of the wooden doorways of stone cottages beside the lanes that led to the farm. They would stare and wave at us as my father drove the Land Rover up the muddy tracks to our farm. The kids learnt to beg for half a peseta, or to barter in exchange for a handful of plums, chestnuts or blackberries. 

My father employed mostly women on the farm, and it was always a joy to hear their singing and laughter as they worked. He built the farm manager a proper house, while he prefered us to sleep in a rather dodgy wooden hut which was erected on a concrete base under the pines and above the plum orchard.


Grandmothers often came to give good advice or to keep an eye on the children

Country folk rarely travelled far, and many were born and died without ever visiting the nearest town, like one or two centenarians I have met in remoter hamlets of the Anaga mountains. They were and remain extremely generous and helpful to each other as communities. The farming chores, like gathering in the wheat and threshing it on the eras, filling the sacks with grain and carrying them on their backs or on mule to the Tacoronte market, were happily shared. 

This very old era, or threshing ground, can be found near Teno Alto

When somebody died, however, the world came to a halt. Neighbours would gather outside the family cottage to pay their respects, and to accompany them during the ritual wake. They would often take food for the grieving family because a cooking fire was not lit for a day or two in respect for the departed. Then, when the priest sent a signal, men would sway in solemn procession down the lanes to the nearest church or cemetery. By law, the dead would need to be buried within forty eight hours after death.

In Lanzarote there is a little village called Soo. It nestles between the Colorado Peak, the highest point of one particular volcanic cone, and what was often referred to as the Soo desert, a grain of sand compared to the neighbouring Sahara.


The pretty village of Soo, as it is today

Not so long ago, when a member of the family passed away, grieving women in Soo would lock themselves into the dead person’s home for eight days. The custom, which only disappeared in the middle of the 20th century, was so that the neighbours could care for and feed the grieving family during those days of mourning. The men, I understand, were excused. They would be required to attend to the animals and the crops. Many years ago, it used to be the custom in all the islands that women never went to funerals. They would only be expected to attend a memorial mass on the third day after a death.

Unlike today, when visiting doctors are often seen in remote villages checking up on the elderly, there were still no doctors or caretakers to cater for peasants well into the 20th century. Country folk either never became ill or, if they did, cared for each other with ancient herbal remedies. If sickness or old age ended in death, men carried their own dead on their shoulders to the cemetery. They would not be taken in a coffin but laid on a simple stretcher made with sticks. It actually made sense because it was a much lighter mode of transportation, and they would often be required to walk considerable distances to a final resting place in holy ground.


A doctor visits elderly people in their Chinamada cave dwellings once a week

More than one story has been handed down from generation to generation telling of porters suddenly being given the fright of their lives on their way down from the hills to the cemetery. Pancho, who owned a pottery kiln above Arico, a village on the south eastern slopes of Tenerife, was a recognised tile maker. He died just before the Spanish Civil War, after apparently collapsing during an argument at the village inn.

His body was lovingly bathed and proudly dressed in his best clothes. But, on the way to the cemetery, transported by men in solemn procession, his rigid body suddenly sat bolt upright on the stretcher and it shouted out, “Hey, what the Devil is going on?”

The stretcher bearers immediately dropped their dead baggage with a hard bump on the ground. They, and the body's relatives and neighbours, scattered, terrified in all directions. Well, with no proper doctor at hand to certify a death, a corpse might at times only have given the impression of being a corpse. Pancho survived to have another argument at the village inn.


A street in the old town centre of Arico

They were definitely more civilized on the island of Lanzarote. They often used camels to rock the dead to the cemetery. Nevertheless, the road to the burial site could be long and hot, with hardly a drop of water to be found. So, if the procession happened to pass close to a village where there was a fiesta going on, the mourners wouldn't hesitate. They would simply join in the festivities, refresh themselves with some good wine to accompany a bowl of goat meat stew and then continue solemnly to the cemetery.

In the village of Teno, situated in the mountain range to the extreme west of Tenerife, the small number of inhabitants who dedicated their lives to sheep, goat and arable farming, were believed to use a specially prepared stretcher for carrying their dead. In fact, unlike the disposable stretchers made with sticks, it was a long box, like the crude wooden ones seen in cowboy films. It had wooden poles attached to each end and was designed to be transported by just two men. The narrow, rocky path down the mountainside was too narrow and dangerous for more than a single file of men to walk down. Then, when the procession reached the Bujame or Negro gorges, the dead person would be transferred into a proper coffin for the rest of the journey to the cemetery which was situated at the coastal town of Buenavista. This mode of transport was still in use as recently as the 1970s because, until then, there was no road to Teno. Like the village of Masca, the hamlet was pretty well isolated from the rest of the world.


Negotiating the mountain tracks into the Bujame gorge could be tricky

As at almost every funeral, processions on the way to the cemetery attracted quite a crowd. Every adult male member of a village would take part. Milking the goats, preparing the terraces or digging the potatoes could wait until tomorrow. The respect paid to the dead and to the grieving family was sacred. It was, and still is, in the nature of these wonderful islanders, and one can still feel the strength of unity today in those rural communities.   

By John Reid Young

Author of:

The Skipping Verger and other Tales (a collection of short stories)

A Shark in the Bath and other Stories (a collection of short stories)

The Journalist (a novel)

For more information, or if you would like to read any of my books, please click on the images to the right of this page.

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