WATCH: Paraded alive in coffins? This has to be Spain’s strangest fiesta

Six open coffins are paraded around a church and its cemetery as onlookers sing religious songs -- but their occupants are all perfectly alive.

WATCH: Paraded alive in coffins? This has to be Spain's strangest fiesta
Open coffins carried on by the relatives of those inside in Las Nieves, Galicia. All photos: Miguel Riopa/ AFP

This strange ritual takes place on July 29th each year in the village of Las Nieves in Galicia in northwestern Spain on the feast day of the local parish's most important saint, Martha, whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead when Jesus visited their home according to the Bible's account.

It is intended as a way for people to thank the saint for having saved themselves or a loved one from death through illness or accident — or to implore her to do so.

Among the devotees this year was Maria Rodriguez, who spent 45 minutes stretched out in a coffin as it was carried by pallbearers, to thank the saint for having saved her dog from cancer.

“It was something spontaneous,” the 69-year-old retiree told AFP when asked why she decided to take part.

“You don't think, it comes from the heart and soul when you love someone,” added Rodriguez who came from Vigo, the closest big city to the village, for the festival.

Several of those who were paraded in open coffins covered their faces with a fan or hats to hide their faces from the press and shelter themselves from the sun as hundreds of people lined the streets to watch the procession go by.

'Cult of life'

Modesto Gomez, a 70-year-old restaurant owner who has attended the festival since he was a child, said there was nothing morbid about it even though he acknowledged its could by “trying” physically and mentally to be carried in an 
open coffin.   

“It's a cult of life. People who in difficult times make this great sacrifice,” he said.

Las Nieves native Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, who wore a white shroud over her shoulders, watched the procession with her young daughter Aida.   “For me, it's the best thing,” she said.

Next year she wants relatives to be carried in two coffins — one to thank Saint Martha for saving her husband from pneumonia and another to ask the saint to help her granddaughter with “several problems”.

Gonzalez said that if it was up to her, she would go into a coffin herself but her family fears something could happen to her because of the heat.   

The solemn procession, which marks the end of a nine-day fiesta in honour of the saint, passed by stands selling food and beer as well as an inflatable castle.

Unknown origins

No one is sure where the tradition of parading people in open coffins comes from.

According to a book about the procession published in Las Nieves, the tradition could date back to the medieval crusades. 

Nobles who left Galicia to take part in the crusades discovered in France the cut of Saint Martha.    

When they returned they thanked the saint for having spared them from death by occupying their own coffins, according to this book.   

Another explanation is offered by Carlos Hernandez, a sociologist writing a thesis about the procession.

In the past people would buy their own coffin while they were still alive when they had the means or when a family member was ill, he said   

If a seriously ill person survived, they would donate their coffin to the local parish for those who could not afford one. It is not clear though when people started to be paraded in the coffins.

The procession is similar to other rituals in Spain that depict the fight being good and evil, life and death, said Hernandez.

“Its about daring to look at death, look at Evil, so that life wins,” he said.

Another village in Galicia also stages a procession with coffins but in this case they are empty.

By AFP's Adrien Vicente 


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Which Spanish regions are likely to allow people to remove their masks outdoors?

As Spain's vaccine campaign gains speed and the infection rate drops, there are indications that facemasks will very soon no longer be compulsory outdoors in several Spanish regions.

Which Spanish regions are likely to allow people to remove masks outdoors?

Spain’s Health Emergencies chief Fernando Simón said at a recent press conference that he is hopeful about relaxing the rule about the use of masks in outdoor spaces, as long as the safety distance of 1.5 meters can be guaranteed.

“It is very possible that in a few days the use of a mask outdoors can be reduced. Of course, always guaranteeing that the risks are decreasing,” he said.

However, Simón also added that “reducing one measure does not mean that the same should be done with all measures”. In addition, he asked citizens to go “step by step and be careful until we see the effects that mean we can relax the restrictions”.

Although this will be decided in the next few days Simón does not want anyone to “fall into false assurances”.

Face masks have been compulsory in public in Spain since May 21st 2020, and since March of this year, you are required to wear them in almost all indoor and outdoor settings, even if you’re sticking to the safety distance, unless the activity is incompatible with mask-wearing such as eating, drinking, sunbathing, running etc. 

Regions that could possibly relax restrictions on the use of masks outdoors

If the mask restrictions are relaxed by the government and the health authorities, the regions that could already qualify because of their low-to-medium risk epidemiological situations include Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León, Castilla La-Mancha, Extremadura, the Valencian region, Murcia, the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands.

Which regions are in favour of the move?

Both Catalonia and Galicia have said that they would be in favour of dropping the use of masks outdoors.

The Catalan government was one of the first regions to open the discussion on relaxing the use of masks outdoors.

According to Catalan Regional Health Secretary MarcRamentol, the Catalan government considers that with at least 30 percent of the population fully vaccinated and more than half of the population having received at least one dose, the matter is worth discussing. 

Not having to wear a mask outdoors will help the summer “feel more like 2019 than that of 2020”, said Ramentol.

President of the Xunta of Galicia Alberto Núñez Feijoo, said last week that he expects the use of masks outdoors will be abolished in July, however on Tuesday, May 18th at the Hotusa Group Tourism Innovation Forum in Madrid, he insisted that it is only “a matter of weeks”.

Although Valencia currently still has some strict rules in place, Regional President Ximo Puig has stated that he is in favour of the mask not being compulsory in open spaces. “We know that in open spaces there is a much lower possibility of contagion and I have been supporting this for a long time – it is not necessary to use the mask in some open spaces, natural spaces or on the beaches,” he said.

Which regions want to keep making masks compulsory in outdoor spaces

Regional authorities in Madrid and the Basque Country, the regions which the highest infection rates in Spain have criticised the national government’s position regarding masks, arguing that’s it’s too soon for masks to no longer be obligatory outdoors.

Andalusia is also against the proposal. Jesús Aguirre, Minister of Health and Families in Adalusia, has said that it would be a mistake since the mask is “the most powerful weapon” with which we have to avoid possible infections within the region.