Heather Conn Blogs

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From medieval hospices to today’s memorials, death walks the Camino

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One of dozens of pilgrim memorials along the Camino

For hundreds of years, death has followed some people on the Camino, either literally or figuratively. Many pilgrims walk the path to honour the loss of a recent loved one, leaving a stone to the person’s memory at the Cruz de Fer (Iron Cross), the highest point of the route at 1,504 metres. At this spot, a cross stands on the end of a tall pole, which rises from the top of a large mound of earth and stones that’s several metres high. Each small rock added to this pile represents someone’s life, a pilgrim’s symbolic gesture of letting go or reinforcing a dream, or a way of saying: “I have been here.”


On the first day of our Camino adventure, after crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain, my husband Frank and I learned that two months earlier, in March, a lone male pilgrim had gotten lost and disoriented in the mountains and had died of exposure. Some said it was a Canadian, others a Brazilian (I find out later he was Italian). We heard that as a result, a tourist office in France was urging all pilgrims to take the lower route, via Valcarlos, rather than the higher one (Route de Napoléon) across the Pyrenees.

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This looks to me like someone used table legs to make this memorial. Whatever works, I guess.

Frank and I had already made that decision ourselves; our guide book recommended using this lower route in poor weather. Since we were experiencing fog, cold, and non-stop rain in late May, we did not want to chance poor visibility at higher elevations. On our second day, before we had walked about 25 kilometres and reached Roncesvalles, it had snowed briefly. Thick mist drifted down from the mountaintops and seemed to shroud the view ahead. We saw only seven people the entire day.


Although initially reluctant to have missed panoramic views available from the higher route, I now felt grateful that we had taken the cautionary path and had arrived safely.


With such weather conditions, it’s not surprising that in medieval days, the Camino route offered many hospitals and hospices to cater to pilgrims’ needs. Back then, people walked the path in sandals, simple shoes or went barefoot. They had no Goretex or specialized waterproof gear. There weren’t over-the-counter medications, tetanus shots, first aid kits or a pharmacy in every town. A simple dog bite, infection, or attack by roving robbers could have resulted in death or serious injury.

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Health wise, these early pilgrims did not enjoy daily hot showers and potable water. They couldn’t walk into a restaurant and order a filling, three-course meal. Many, understandably, got sick and never completed the route. In such cases, they might end up in a hospice bed, tended to by nuns, where they could be carried into a particular church or cathedral and receive the same sacred song or blessing as if they had finished the path.


Back then, kings and queens chartered hospices as a way of currying God’s favour as a shortcut to heaven. In the medieval form of lay charity, specialized religious orders sheltered pilgrims and others to reflect their ideal of holiness as practical and accessible rather than separate and cloistered, according to James William Brodman, author of Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe.


This sounds like the height of practical religious service to me: Come down and be close to the people rather than have them seek you out in hallowed places, especially when they’re ill and near-death. Camino pilgrims, after all, are great symbols of people with their feet to the ground, rather than their head in the clouds.

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One of my Camino companions, a Brazilian, rests beside an informal memorial.


In these early hospices, pilgrims’ spiritual needs were considered just as, if not more, important than their healing or palliative care. Those tending the sick and dying made the patients’ need for sacraments and religious burial a top priority.


(In the 12th century, although there were no lists of “Ten best places to die on the Camino,” the Codex Calixtinus, widely considered the world’s first travel guide, gave pilgrims basic information about the route. This publication is said to have been available from 1140 on; even then, tourism surrounding the Camino was organized.)


Some of the centuries-old former hospices and hospitals are still standing along today’s route or have been converted to albergues. As a hospice volunteer, I wanted to find out more about these historic structures and services but have uncovered little about them so far.

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While walking the Camino, I saw dozens of memorials that honoured the life of a pilgrim who had died en route. Most were simple stone, wood or concrete structures with a cross. Some bore a photo of the person and a brief summary of his or her life. In one small town, I discovered that a bicycle sculpture I had admired on a steep street was actually a memorial to a pilgrim who had died while cycling downhill.


I don’t know how many pilgrims die on the Camino each year, whether most suffer a heart attack or get hit by a car. Our guidebook warned us in a few places where there had been a traffic-related death. But the handful of deaths in recent years is teeny compared to the 183,366 who walked the route in 2012, for example.

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This niche along the path includes memorial messages and a prayerful plea
from a mother for help with her wayward teenage daughter.

It never saddened me to see one of the memorials. I believe that almost every person who had died along the way was middle-aged; perhaps they were fulfilling a lifelong dream or challenging their physical boundaries. Regardless, they died as part of intentional travel, on an adventure. I felt a kinship with these pilgrims of the past. Their souls live on.

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November 9, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (2)