It has taken four decades of democracy, political perseverance, a tortuous legal process and a war of words with the Vatican, but on Thursday the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco are to be exhumed from his grandiose resting place and reburied in a cemetery.
Since his death in 1975, Franco’s body has lain at the Valley of the Fallen, a huge monument he built following his 1939 victory in the civil war. Situated in a dramatic wooded valley in the mountains northwest of Madrid, it is visible for miles around due to a 150m-high stone cross that towers above it.
Franco’s remains are buried at the far end of a Catholic basilica, which is drilled into the side of the mountain.
“The dictator, creator of a black past in the history of our country, cannot lie in a state tomb,” said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo two weeks ago, as she announced that the exhumation plans had been finalised.
“This [is] the only democracy with a dictator in a place where he can still be honoured.”
At 10.30am local time on Thursday, 22 members of the Franco family are due to arrive at the Valley of the Fallen. Two of them are expected to enter the basilica to watch as the 1.5-tonne slab behind the main altar that covers the dictator’s tomb is removed and his coffin pulled out. Media access will be tightly restricted and a marquee will be erected inside the basilica, to stop drones from filming from above.
That process is expected to take between one and three hours, depending on the state of the coffin and the body. A helicopter will then take the remains – unless poor weather makes the use of a hearse necessary – to Mingorrubio cemetery, which is on the outskirts of northern Madrid, for reburial.
There, Franco’s relatives will hold a Mass at which the minister of justice, Dolores Delgado, will be present.
The Socialist administration has been the driving force behind this initiative.
On taking office in June 2018, prime minister Pedro Sánchez immediately announced his intention to exhume Franco’s remains. Presenting it as a pending issue for Spanish democracy, he initially set a deadline of a few weeks. Yet it quickly became apparent that it was going to take longer than his government had anticipated, due mainly to legal obstacles.
The plan looked in danger of backfiring dramatically when the grandchildren of the dictator declared that if the exhumation, which they opposed, were to go ahead then they would choose to rebury their grandfather in a crypt beneath Almudena cathedral in central Madrid, where they own a plot of land. The prospect of the heart of the Spanish capital becoming the resting place for Franco horrified the Socialist administration, which feared it would become a magnet for far-right fanatics.
The government preferred Mingorrubio cemetery, where Franco’s widow is buried, due to its low-key and relatively uncontroversial nature.
There was also another, more personal obstacle for the government. Santiago Cantera, the prior of the Benedictine monastery at the Valley of the Fallen, which manages the basilica, refused to co-operate. It emerged that Cantera's political convictions may have swayed him: in the early 1990s, he ran in elections as a candidate for the far-right Falange party.
Although Spain’s Catholic hierarchy has sought to steer clear of the matter where possible, the Vatican’s representative in Madrid, Renzo Fratini, warned that the Socialist government was unwittingly bringing Franco “back to life” with its plans. He pointed to a sharp increase in visits to the Valley of the Fallen since the exhumation had been announced.
Deputy prime minister Calvo responded by saying that Fratini had “meddled in the domestic affairs of a state”.
The legal wrangle continued until last month, when the supreme court ruled that the government exhumation plan was lawful and that Mingorrubio cemetery should be the reburial site. Cantera, meanwhile, is expected to be present at the reburial Mass.
Although Sánchez did win parliamentary approval of the exhumation, it divides parties along left-right lines. To the Socialists' left, Podemos supports the exhumation but believes Spain should go much further and prosecute human rights abusers from the Franco era who now benefit from an amnesty law approved during the transition to democracy.
On the centre-right, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos see the procedure as an unnecessary opening of old wounds.
“We have to look to the future,” said PP leader Pablo Casado recently. “I would like to be talking about the Spain of my children and not that of my grandparents.”
There is speculation that the transferral of Franco’s body will mobilise support for the far-right Vox, many of whose voters are nostalgic for Franco, ahead of a November 10th general election. Franco supporters are expected to turn out today to demonstrate against the exhumation.