29 April 2023


After seeing her partner suffer the agony of meningitis for 3 days, then fall into a coma and be declared, first, brain-dead and, then, heart-dead later on Wednesday, Thursday at the tanatorio and Friday at the crematorium and cemetery were swift but brutal for my devastated daughter and her in-laws. A degree of comfort came from the many, many people who come both during the 10 hour vigil at the tanatorio on Thursday and to the crematorium early on Friday.

Today, Saturday, my daughter is still, of course, in shock and grieving massively, but calmer. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the Spanish way of doing things.

Anyway, in case you’re unfamiliar with tanatorios, here’s something I wrote back in 2014. I should add that there are funeral companies and funeral directors but you won’t have to deal with these or the tanatorio if you have insurance. If you do, the company – which operates around the clock 24/7 – will deal with all the arrangements, starting immediately after the death. And will even give you a cashback if you don’t opt for everything available under the cover paid for – such as ‘tombstones’ announcing the death in the media.


A few weeks ago, I attended my first Spanish funeral. It’s the norm in Spain that the burial takes place within 48 hours. This is a custom which presumably has a lot to do with the heat of the South and almost certainly dates back hundreds of years. If there’s to be a Requiem Mass, this takes place a week or two after the burial.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no such animal as a Funeral Director in Spain. Or a Funeral Home, where the body can reside until the funeral takes place. In the UK the latter is usually 10 to 14 days after the death of the individual. Spaniards find this as remarkable as we find burial within 48 hours. Especially as the latter makes it impossible for far-flung loved ones to make it to the burial.

Here in Spain, the body is taken to a tanatorio, something about which I’d heard quite a bit but never experienced. To foreigners, these are a bit of a shock, even if you’re forewarned about them.

A town may have just the one tanatorio, like Pontevedra, or it may have several, as in Santiago de Compostela. They are usually large, single storey buildings located near a cemetery and the one I attended was no exception. This is a description of it and what took place there:-

The tanatorio was located in a bleak industrial park and seemed to be one of 2 or 3 in the area. The parking lot was large and only half-full. Despite this, a couple of drivers had left their cars on the pavement. Presumably because it was raining. So far, so Spanish.

On entering, you’re struck by how much the place resembles an airport departure hall.

You’re confronted by a reception desk on your right and the entrance to a pretty utilitarian chapel on your left. Then come toilets and a café on your right and a flower shop on your left. Hanging from the ceiling is a large TV, giving details of who is in each of seven rooms to the left of the long, wide corridor stretching ahead of you. I’m told that the resemblance to an airport can be reinforced by tannoy announcements of who’s coming and going. But in this case there was only the TV screen, rather like those that tell you which carousel your luggage is on.

Each of the rooms is about 20 square metres and has its own toilets. There’s a glass-sided cubicle in one corner in which the coffin – possibly open – and flowers are housed and illuminated at the time advertised on the TV. This is usually one hour before the coffin is taken out either to the cemetery, to the chapel or to the crematorium.

It’s not at all unusual for family members to spend 24 hours in the room allocated to their deceased relative. Indeed, some see this as compulsory.

In our case, the coffin and flowers were scheduled to be illuminated from 1pm to 2pm, when it would be taken to the chapel for 3readings and 3pieces of music.

There’s little by way of formality on these occasions in Spain and no solemnity. Chatting among friends and relations is the norm, usually in the corridor rather than the rooms. Both the corridor and the room have sofas and armchairs. Essentially, it’s a social occasion.

The dress code is relaxed. It’s not uncommon for both men and women to wear jeans and in summer women don’t hesitate to wear short skirts and low-cut tops. Neither suits nor ties are obligatory for men. There is almost no black worn. Northern Europeans like me who did so were conspicuous in our customary mourning clothes. Even the 4 attendants wore blue shirts and ties.

The coffin was moved at 2pm to the chapel. This bore no sign whatsoever of any religion, except for what looked like a (closed) tabernacle on one wall. After the readings and the music, the coffin was moved from the aisle of the chapel to the crematorium. No one accompanied it, but one woman touched it as it left and another leant and kissed it.

Then we moved out of the chapel, for the taking of farewells – always a long process in Spain. I noticed that a crucifix had been re-attached to the wall and the ‘tabernacle’ had been opened to reveal a picture of the Virgin Mary. A simple altar had also be laid in the middle of the dais, reading for the next Catholic ceremony.

After half an hour or more of farewells, we drove back to a hotel, to take a drink in our friend’s memory.


  1. In our corner, things are similar except there’s usually no chapel in the tanatorio. The coffin in its glassed-in corner is always illuminated, and since Covid, the tanatorio is closed at night to visitors, though I believe family can still remain.

    When the appointed time comes, the priest comes to pray, and the coffin is taken to the parish church, followed by everyone. There, the Requiem Mass is said and then the coffin is taken to the niche. I don’t know how they fit in the cremation, if before, after, or without Mass. It’s in another building in an industrial park and that custom is relatively new here.

    Truly, each time one of my parents died, 48 hours seemed to stretch so long that it felt unbearable. I can’t imagine if I lost my husband, how wretched I would be, not to mention have to wait 10 or 14 days to finish goodbyes. I feel for your daughter. I don’t know her, but give her my love and a good hug.


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