Living and dying



This article is offered as a public service by JimenaPulse and is written in collaboration with local funeral director MANUEL GUTIERREZ VECINA, AGENTE DE SEGUROS Y AGENTE FUNERARIO, 667 556 489. No responsibility whatsoever is assumed by its authors.

Laws, customs and traditions can differ significantly from what our readers are familiar with. The circumstances 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. However, the one common thread throughout this article is: be prepared. Death, our own or anyone else’s, is not often something we want to face up to but 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, it will be so much smoother.

We have not tackled the legal aspects or implications following a death as these are best left to a lawyer, but we do urge you to seek advice about wills, inheritance taxes, and so on.


At home:

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).

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 local 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 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.

In an accident:

When a death happens 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 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 with the facilities for an autopsy (not all of them have them). For example, if it happened on the other side of Algeciras, the body could be ordered all the way to Cadiz 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 for, so these must be called in as soon as feasible and appropriate arrangements will be made between the two or more parties involved.


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 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.

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, 2008), a funeral will cost upwards of €2,500.

Local interment

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 (cost at this date: about €900), the family only rents the space. The first five years of interment are included in the price of the funeral. After that, one pays the local Ayuntamiento every five years; in Jimena and San Pablo, for example, rental at time of writing is €79.03 for the full five years. 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.

Interment abroad

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. At a local level, it is possible to be cremated in La Línea or Algeciras. The cost of this option will increase the total by some €1500.


It is considered ‘bad form’ to leave the deceased unaccompanied; indeed, it 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 non-Mediterranean cultures accept this as normal, so it is the deceased family’s decision as to what they want doing.

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 and 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 do that. It may also apply because burials at the castle cemetery in Jimena used to be particularly difficult, to the point that it was not unusual for the widow to miss the burial altogether, though not the religious service. However, this, too, is changing rapidly thanks to the advent of tanatorios.

At the cemetery, in the case of a burial, the custom is to lay the coffin down close to the entrance. The family stands behind it 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 the nicho closed by the cemetery caretaker. 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 caretaker 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 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, but it remains almost anathema to most of the population.
However, neighbours and friends may well turn up with food and sometimes drink, during the night/s of vigil 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 (now also in Jimena, a the San Pablo cemetery) at which it is perfectly alright to take a break without any reproof whatsoever.

Local custom has the family leaving for home from the cemetery as soon as the funeral 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 services and words of condolence will be expressed. These 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, unless the person expressing their condolence is well known (neighbours, business colleagues, etc.) to the receiver of them, 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.

Added by Louie Castle:

People might be interested to know that there is an Inscripción en el Registro de Voluntades Vitales Anticipadas de Andalucia that is to say a form of Living Will.  It is 10 pages long and goes into a fair bit of detail.  Its available from the Consejería de Salud.  I can’t remember where I got mine!  People might start by asking at the Ambulatorio (Health Centre) or perhaps you can get it on line?  It’s called Formulario (form) No. 001007/AO3 and AO2 and AO4.

I thought your essay very good.  Thank goodness we  seem to have done with the dreadful all night long wailing which used to happen.  One little point I might make is that it is perfectly possible for there to be no funeral at all, if the death occurs in Hospital; people might like to know that …

‘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.

1.    This article is subject to revision. A glossary of related terms, a pronunciation guide and a one-page quick-reference sheet will be attached.
2.    No responsibility of any kind is assumed by its authors.

COMING SOON: How to donate organs and body. (Form guide in English to be available for a fee.)

© Alberto Bullrich 2008/2009/2010/2011 (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.