Friday, June 9

The culture of death

“Only the men came down. When they returned in the afternoon with the empty box, with their black suits, I was very scared”. They are memories of Emilia González as a child. Those images have become fossilized in her memory. The point of no return of the life cycle is not a culture in itself. However, death is a cultural element for some past and present civilizations. The town of Buenavista del Norte, the geological origin of Tenerife along with Anaga and the cradle of the oldest Guanche remains on the island, treasures a set of funerary milestones that has prompted its Town Hall to design a route on the culture of death. One of the most unique episodes, typical of the deep and rural Canary Islands, are the community coffins, kept in a cave in the highlands of Teno Alto.

To get to know this ethnographic relic of the past, we set off in Los Bailaderos. It is the starting point chosen by most walkers to walk the different trails of the highlands. But also, until just half a century ago, it was the beginning of peculiar and dangerous funeral processions, because the transfer of the dead was a risk to the lives of the bearers. Teno Alto has a population of 65 people, most of them live in this hamlet. In the past, when there was no road connecting the village with Buenavista, there were approximately 400 inhabitants. That thirteen-kilometer road that today connects the Buenavistero town with the hamlet was inaugurated in 1972. Until that year, when a countryman died, the deceased was transferred in a box through a vertiginous gorge to the municipal cemetery, on Isla Baja.

The boxes, because there are two of them, both as blue as the sky, were kept in a cave. They still remain in that grotto. The largest of the boxes was for transporting larger deceased, while the other was for smaller deceased. It is one of the most relevant ethnographic and cultural assets of this municipality located in the extreme northwest of the largest of the Canary Islands. The cave was covered by a stone wall that has been replaced by a door made of metal bars to protect them and prevent some soulless from stealing them. Despite the fence, there are unconscious people who try to open the boxes with the help of a hiker’s stick, to see what is inside. On Sunday, March 12, when we visited Teno Alto, the closest box was partially open, as can be seen in the cover photo of this report.

This circumstance greatly worries historian Ithaisa Abreu, director of the project Life and death on the same path, good crib visor and a member of PRORED, Arqueología, Patrimonio y Sociedad, the company that collaborates with the Buenavista del Norte City Council to execute the route of the culture of death. From the audiovisual of that project –see in Youtube-, we have collected several of the testimonies that enrich this report.

The objective of this initiative financed by the Government of the Canary Islands, the Councilor for Cultural Heritage and the Environment, Esteban Lorenzo, tells this newspaper, “is the study of the culture of death from the aborigines to the present day. The first thing we did was an ethnographic study in the El Palmar Valley, in Teno Alto and in the town of Buenavista. Then we investigated the town of Masca and the Los Carrizales hamlet.”

These last two places also had their communal boxes. That of Masca is preserved in the church. From there, the deceased were taken to the Santiago del Teide cemetery as it was much closer to the head of the municipality. From Los Carrizales, the transfer was to the Valle de El Palmar and from there the body was transferred to the coffin in which it would be buried in Buenavista. But the Teno Alto boxes are the ones that last the longest in memory for two reasons. The first is that the population was much higher than that of those payments and the second is because of the difficulty of the path, with a drop of 700 meters through a disturbing gorge.

Antonio Hernández Álvarez knows very well the danger of the three kilometers from the beginning of the cliff to Buenavista. He went up and down daily to work. “You had to be very careful when he got off with the box, after fitting the deceased well so that he did not move. The strongest man is the one who was in front. Along the narrow and winding path, there were two places to rest. The last stop was at El Cargadero, where the corpse was transferred to the coffin in which it would be buried.

Patrocinia González perfectly remembers those episodes. “When a person died, another would go to Buenavista to notify Saturnino so that he could make the burial box. One or two days after the wake, the men would go down the Camino del Risco with the deceased inside the communal box. “At that time,” Patrocinia continues, “there were no flower crowns. The women would go down a few days later to the funeral, in the church of Buenavista”.

“They didn’t explain anything to us about the dead and we lived them in fear,” Emilia recalls those passages from her childhood. What scared him the most was the return “of the men with the empty box, dressed in their black suits.” Pastor Victoriano González was also afraid of going through the cave of the boxes. “When he grazed with the goats he never went there.” The fear of the spirits of the dead was present in that black and white society. “At night, we placed scissors in a cross on the door of the house to scare away witches,” says the elderly Domitila González.

The anthropologist Manuel Lorenzo Perera –La Orotava 1947- is the adoptive son of Buenavista del Norte. Author of numerous research papers, he is director of the Ethnographic Institute of Tenerife. About Teno Alto, Perera affirms the following: “Teno is the island of the afterlife. Traditionally it has been considered a rejection area, except for its inhabitants, clinging like rocks to a steep, harsh and wild landscape”.

Communal mortuary boxes are not exclusive to the municipality of Buenavista del Norte. In San Bartolomé de Tirajana, in the south of Gran Canaria, the coffin of Ayagaures is still kept in a cave. The deceased of that mountain hamlet were transferred to the Tirajana cemetery. In La Palma they were used in remote villages of Garafía, while in El Hierro, in Los Llanillos, municipality of La Frontera, there was a common box for people who did not have the resources to pay for the coffin. “Whoever did not have enough means, they put him in that box and took him to the cemetery. Wrapped in a blanket, they placed it in the grave. Subsequently, the coffin was taken back to the place where it has always been and which still continues,” Marcos Barrera explained to this same newspaper in July 2018.

Decades ago, the deceased from the island of La Graciosa led long routes until they were buried. By land and by sea. The deceased were transferred by boat to the coast of Risco de Famara. From there, with a kind of cloth stretcher and two sticks, four people went up the path with the deceased and led him to the Haría cemetery. This practice was carried out until 1943, the year in which the La Graciosa cemetery was built.

The tomb of Juan Mendez

Once the Risco path has been overcome, the route of the culture of death will run on Isla Baja. The hermitage of the Hacienda del Conde de Siete Fuentes is an emblematic place because in 1546 the founder of the town, Juan Méndez, was buried the old. Buenavista del Norte is one of the few Tenerife municipalities with a founding act. It dates from 1513, just seventeen years after the end of the conquest of the Island, data that illustrates the relevance of the Daute Guanche menceyate.

The next stop is at the Casa del Chorro, already in the historic center, cataloged as BIC. This is where the deceased were left after the journey along the Camino del Risco until the day of burial in the current cemetery or, before, in the Old Cemetery. This old cemetery is a building with five centuries of history. The Franciscans built a convent shortly after the founding of the town. With the confiscation, it was transformed into a cemetery but it has been abandoned for 77 years. He will soon be resurrected.

After many negotiations and efforts, just two weeks ago the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage has notified a grant of 150,000 euros for its restoration. “In addition to recovering the historical property,” explains councilor Esteban Lorenzo, “we will adapt it as a multipurpose space and it will be an important element of the route of the culture of death.”

An important place in the projected death route is in the El Palmar ravine. It is an aboriginal site in the lower part of the town of habitation and burial caves. Some have been excavated but require further investigation, says archaeologist Ithaisa Abreu. “This year, we hope to intervene in a burial cave.”

Although it is not the same project as “world of the dead, but it does coincide in the territory”, it is the proposal to create “an archaeoethnographic park that shows the evolution of this area in El Palmar”, explains the Councilor for Cultural Heritage, since that “most of the Guanche caves were reused after the Conquest.” Esteban Lorenzo laments that “it is difficult for us to promote the idea because there is not the necessary interest on the part of the Cabildo or in other spheres, at least for now.”

Pending the possible authorization of the archaeological enclave, the effort to materialize the path of death will soon become a reality, according to municipal plans. It’s not the only one. Once the Camino de la Costa has been achieved (see chapter 2 of this trilogy), at the end of this year the Museo de las Libreas will be inaugurated, which rescues “a dance typical of the El Palmar Valley, unique in the Canary Islands”, says Lorenzo. For this purpose, it has had financial support from the Cabildo and the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage, an organization that supports the different heritage plans designed by the Buenavista del Norte town hall, as its tourist slogan says, where Tenerife begins.