Spain in quandary over exhumation and reburial of dictator

Franco’s remains could end up in Madrid cathedral, making it a mecca for extremists

General Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain for nearly 40 years, died on the 20th of November, 1975 after a serious illness lasting nearly six weeks.

 

A Spanish government plan to exhume Francisco Franco from his mausoleum is threatening to backfire dramatically due to efforts by the late dictator’s family to rebury his remains in Madrid cathedral.

Soon after taking office in June, the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez announced its intention to remove the body of Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a massive monument in the mountains northwest of Madrid dedicated to the general’s victory in the 1936-39 civil war. Franco ruled Spain from the end of the conflict until his death in 1975 and the site remains both a tourist attraction and a magnet for Franco’s far-right supporters.

Last month, parliament paved the way for the exhumation by approving an amendment to the existing Historical Memory law. However, the process is taking longer than anticipated, due to legal objections by the dictator’s family, and the site of his new resting place is still up in the air.

The government wanted the remains to be relocated to a less divisive site, such as the cemetery in El Pardo, on the outskirts of Madrid, where the Franco family already owns a plot of land.

But the dictator’s seven grandchildren are trying to ensure that, after being exhumed, he is reburied inside la Almudena cathedral in central Madrid, next to the royal palace. If they are successful, the move could turn the city’s tourism hub into a place of pro-Franco pilgrimage.

Franco’s late daughter, Carmen, bought a plot in the cathedral’s crypt in 1987 for her family’s use and she was buried there last year. According to the law, the government can choose the site for the reburial only if the Franco family is unable to reach a consensus. If the grandchildren can all agree, they will in theory be able to bury their grandfather in the cathedral.

Politics of the dead

“If the family decide to bury him there, [the church] cannot stop them,” said José María Gil Tamayo, spokesman for the Episcopal Conference.

“The church cannot deny that right to a Christian, if the family has acquired the right.” He added: “The dead do not have a political affiliation.”

The Catholic Church got caught up in a Franco-related controversy earlier this year, when the prior of the Benedictine monastery at the Valley of the Fallen refused to allow a forensic team to enter crypts there in order to try and identify the remains of four casualties of the civil war. Franco had over 33,000 such victims from both sides of the conflict interred in the mausoleum’s vaults, often without their families’ consent.

Gen Francisco Franco: many in favour of the exhumation of his remains are querying the government’s handling of it. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Gen Francisco Franco: many in favour of the exhumation of his remains are querying the government’s handling of it. Photograph: AFP/Getty

The prior defied a court order and risked further legal action until the Episcopal Conference stepped in and persuaded him to co-operate.

The current dispute over Franco’s exhumation, however, threatens to have political repercussions. Sánchez’s Socialist Party has less than a quarter of seats in Congress, curbing its ability to introduce major reforms. Critics say this has encouraged the government to opt instead for media-friendly gestures, such as welcoming the Aquarius immigrant boat after Italy shunned it and promising to dig up Franco.

The government has insisted that the exhumation and reburial will be completed by the end of the year. But if they do not go to plan it will be a severe blow to the credibility of the Sánchez administration and fuel opposition calls for a general election.

Even many of those who are in favour of the exhumation have started to query the government’s handling of it.

Resting place

“It doesn’t seem right to me that [Franco] should be buried in la Almudena, but given the state of Spanish politics, it’s to be expected,” said Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH).

“There has been lots of talk and four months have gone by, but Franco is still there,” he said. “It’s as if the government were afraid of him.”

As the cathedral has seemed an increasingly likely final resting place for the dictator, reports have circulated that the government is hoping Pope Francis will intervene. A group of Spanish MEPs has written to the pope asking him to do so and deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo is due to meet the Vatican’s secretary of state Pietro Parolin at the end of this month, although she has said the issue is not on their agenda.

There are also reports that the government is mulling a last-ditch legal manoeuvre to prevent Franco from being buried in the cathedral.

Meanwhile, the dictator’s diehard supporters, who are a small minority, insist that the exhumation is illegal. In recent months, posters have been put up in the streets of Madrid expressing opposition to the plan, under the slogan “Don’t touch the Valley [of the Fallen]”.

The Francisco Franco Foundation, which glorifies the memory of the dictator, taunted the government in a post on its website which described the “nervousness” of the administration at the prospect of “thousands and thousands of Spaniards laying flowers in the crypt of Madrid cathedral” in tribute to Franco.

The foundation also cast doubt on whether the exhumation would ever happen.

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