In order to understand the emergence of funeral carriages, we need to put them into the context of the time, namely the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, when Barcelona was a walled city governed by the privileged aristocracy and under the influence of the dogmas and traditions of the Catholic Church. Clear signs of change, however, were already apparent.
There was a rapid increase in commercial and artisan activity in the city, driven by agricultural growth in Catalonia and direct trade with the Americas, leading to a steep rise in the population. This created a problem with burials as traditionally, the dead were buried in parish graveyards, close to homes, shops and workshops. The rise in the population therefore put increasing pressure on church graveyards which became overcrowded and unsanitary, emitting toxic gases and threatening the health of the city’s residents.
As a solution to the health problems caused by the graveyards, the then Bishop of Barcelona, Josep Climent i Avinent (1706-1781), a forward-thinking man focused on reform, founded a new cemetery in 1775 where the Poblenou Cemetery currently stands. This move was supported by the local authorities and it was the first cemetery to be located outside of the city walls. The creation of this cemetery marked a significant change in established funeral rituals and was initially unpopular with the people of Barcelona who were reluctant to move away from the traditional Christian customs that had governed public life in the city for many centuries. For this reason, the new cemetery was only used as an ossuary for exhumations of human remains from other cemeteries, and for the burial of the poor who died at the Sant Pau i la Santa Creu Hospital. Later, in 1813, it was destroyed by Napoleon’s forces during the Peninsular War.
Barcelona emerged from the conflict as a city in full transformation. Colonial trade was at a peak and traditional manufacturing was giving way to signs of budding industrialisation. The emergence of new economic activities and the disappearance of more traditional trades gave rise to new social forms and customs. The growth in the population and the lack of space within the city walls was particularly problematic during these years, and with the consequent health problems associated with churchyard burials, it became increasingly pressing to create a new cemetery outside of the city.
Bishop Sitjar, demonstrating the political power still held by the church, decided to build a cemetery within the same ecclesiastical grounds where Bishop Climent had built the first general cemetery. The architect commissioned to build the new funeral site was Antoni Ginesi who worked to maintain the traditional Catholic nature of the city, while also taking into account the inclusion of new social groups and the recent developments within Barcelona.
Graveyards within the grounds of parish churches had ensured the physical proximity of deceased family members and enabled the faithful to visit their dead. The new funeral site, on the other hand, was over a kilometre from the city, a 30-minute walk across an utterly deserted area where care had to be taken to guard against attacks by wolves. Given the dissatisfaction of the local people and the numerous complaints and rumours about muggings, new ways of travelling to and from the cemetery were needed, bringing about a change in funeral customs and rituals. One of the first changes brought about by burials outside of the city was the creation of a new trade: bearers who carried the dead on foot using stretchers, transporting mortal remains to the cemetery.
This new custom was to change again in 1835, during a period of political transformation that was progressive and revolutionary in nature, and which saw the cemetery become a municipal concern. The new mayor of the time, Josep Marià de Cabanes i d’Escofet, passed a law prohibiting transportation of the dead by foot, meaning carriages were necessary to carry the deceased from the city to the cemetery. This move was highly unpopular with the people, who filled the streets in protest on the day of the first burial by carriage. The first funeral carriage to arrive at the Poblenou Cemetery came from the Sant Cugat del Rec Parish in 1836.
The transportation of the dead by carriage that began that year in Barcelona marked an early example of the emerging development of urban transportation. As the century drew on, the funeral carriage industry grew and adapted to the ever-changing needs and customs of the city. The vehicles began to be equipped with new technical advances and incorporated the latest fashion styles and trends. The carriages, however, continued to be highly artistic and maintained their symbolic weight, as shown by the magnificent collection of Barcelona’s funeral carriages. The luxurious nature of the carriage, together with that of the coffin, soon became a significant indicator of a family’s political and economic power and quickly captured the public’s attention. In the case of famous and popular figures, the funeral carriage became a focal point for displays of public condolence.