Priest outlaws coffins at Spain’s strange ‘Living Dead’ festival

The new priest of a Galician village famed for holding a 'Living Dead' procession in which live people are paraded around in open coffins has banned this year's bizarre spectacle, claiming that it has more to do with witchcraft than religion.

Priest outlaws coffins at Spain's strange 'Living Dead' festival
A 'living dead' woman is carried in an open casquet by her relatives during the annual "Procession of the Shrouds", but not without first protecting herself from the sun by holding an umbrella and wearing sunglasses. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

The Os Mortos Vivos (Living Dead) fiesta held in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Galicia (northwest Spain) will not be quite as peculiar this year.

That’s because the village’s new priest has decided to ban the day’s star tradition – the Procession of the Shrouds – which sees living people carried around in open coffins through the packed streets.

Usually those who ‘play dead’ in the caskets are locals who have escaped death in real life and it’s their relatives who carry the coffins on their shoulders.

But according to el cura (the priest), the custom has lost its religious significance and morphed into something more sinister.

People who have escaped death in real life lie in caskets and are carried in procession by relatives as a gesture of gratitude. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Speaking to La Sexta TV channel, Father Francisco Javier explained he was against the tradition because, whilst it was popular, it generates “a lot of superstition, a lot of witchcraft, a lot of nonsense”.

The vast majority of Ribarteme’s villagers don’t want to lose this strange ritual which takes place every year on July 29th on the feast day of the local parish’s most important saint, Santa Marta.

One man described the decision as “horrible… because I’ve been coming here [for the event] since I was a boy”.

“It’s only the priest who wants to ban it, it’s a disgrace because it’s a tradition that’s always been like this,” another woman commented.

The Mayor of Santa Marta de Ribarteme, Xosé Manuel Rodríguez, recognised the event as being of cultural interest, and was more optimistic about recovering the spooky tradition.

“We are sure that if it will return,” Rodríguez told La Sexta. “We are going to recover a tradition that all of us would like to see continue”.

A smiling woman is carried in a coffin by relatives during the annual “Procession of the Shrouds”. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Unknown origins

The peculiar tradition of carrying living people around in open coffins has long taken place in the neighbouring Pontevedra villages of As Neves and Santa Marta de Ribarteme.

Some say it came about as a way for people to give thanks to Saint Martha for saving them or a loved one from death, an illness or an accident – or to implore her to do so in future. 

But no one is truly sure about the procession’s origins.

According to a book about the casket carrying published in As Neves, the tradition could date back to the Medieval Crusades. 

Nobles who left Galicia for the Middle East discovered in France the story of Saint Martha, whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead when Jesus visited their home, according to the Bible’s account.

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

Expect to see plenty of emotion at the Procession of the Shrouds, even from the ‘living dead’. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Another explanation is offered by Carlos Hernández, a sociologist who wrote 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.

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

“Its about daring to stare death in the face, looking at Evil, so that life wins,” he argued.

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

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Is this Spain’s most ‘grotesque’ bull festival?

Twisting and grunting, a terrified bull with burning balls of tar attached to its horns charges into the darkness in a small town in Spain. Organisers don't want the general public to see the footage as "they know it's not culture, it's animal abuse," say activists.

Is this Spain's most 'grotesque' bull festival?

Animal rights campaigners have called for a ban on a centuries-old festival in the medieval town of Medinaceli, calling it animal abuse.

The ironically named Toro de Júbilo – “Bull of Joy” – is an event which typically takes place on the second weekend in November.

Spanish anti-animal cruelty party PACMA has said it is mulling legal action against organisers of the event.

“This grotesque tradition continues to be celebrated even though we are no longer in the Stone Age,” it tweeted.

You can watch footage of the event in the YouTube video below. It is age-restricted given the graphic nature of the event.

Just before midnight on Saturday, a group of mostly men dressed in matching grey uniforms drag the bull into a makeshift bullring set up in the main square of the Castilla y León town.

They then tie the bull to a wooden post and attach balls of highly flammable tar to its horns as hundreds of people watch behind barriers. 

They cake mud to the animal’s back and face in an effort to protect it from the flames, before setting the tar balls alight.

Participants then release the bull into the square, covered in sand for the occasion, to cheers and applause from the crowd.

fire bull festival medinaceli

The bull is caged for several hours in a small box and covered in mud before the depraved spectacle begins. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

The bull frantically shakes its head to try to rid itself of the burning balls of tar as it races around the square.

Revellers then jump into the ring and attempt to dodge the bull in a purported test of courage. Some dangle a cape in front of it.

This continues for about 20 minutes until the flammable balls on its horns go out and the bull collapses. It is then dragged out of the ring.

‘Simply animal abuse’

The bull’s life is traditionally spared at the end of the event.

But in the 2022 edition the animal died after another young, castrated bull – which organisers sent into the bullring to guide him out of the arena – rammed him in the head, the festival said.

Jaime Posada, of the Spanish branch of animal rights group Anima Naturalis, which is also calling for a ban, said the bull is kept in a tight pen for hours before it is dragged into the square.

“It can’t move, it can hardly sit down, so it is stressed simply from that,” he told AFP.

Participants attach flammable balls to the bull’s horns before releasing it. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

Participants declined to be interviewed, and PACMA and other opponents of the fiesta said locals prevented them from filming the ritual.

“Why are they afraid? Basically because they know that this is not culture, it’s simply animal abuse and they enjoy doing it,” Posada said.

The festival, however, is one of the main events for Medinaceli, which is home to around 650 people.

The regional government of Castilla y León has even given the festival a special cultural status.

The Medinaceli town hall did not respond to a request to comment.

There is growing opposition among Spaniards to the hundreds of bull festivals which take place in Spain, but in rural communities in particular, many people still support these old traditions involving varying degrees of torture and distress for the bulls, and in many cases death.

Another controversial bull festival is El Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas near Valladolid, which sees one bull hunted to the death through the town’s streets by lancers on horseback and some on foot.