The brotherhood that buries the untouchables

By Maria D. Valderrama

Béthune, France, May 21 (efe-epa).- Death is part of the cultural heritage in Béthune, a town in the former mining basin of northern France.

The brothers of the Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi, in their black cloaks and bicornes, have been burying the dead for eight centuries.

Rich or poor, there is no lavish pomp or imposing procession to bid farewell to those who have passed away.

Instead, members of the brotherhood carry the coffin down the street that leads to the town’s main cemetery.

“Almost all the burials pass through us, I would say 90 percent. It’s exceptional that a family does not count on us,” says chief brother Robert Guenot, known as a “prévost.”

Guenot, 72, has now had to face a new pandemic, a turning point in the eight centuries of history for the Charitables.

The brotherhood’s creation dates back to 1188 when the Black Death ravaged the region, killing half the population in some cities.

“There were so many dead that people did not dare to touch them and the corpses overflowed the city,” says Guenot.

Two blacksmiths, Gauthier de Béthune and Germon de Beuvry, are said to have been visited by Saint Eligius, patron saint of metalworkers, in a dream who told them to create a charity to bury corpses.

The brotherhood has continued to this day, through some of the most turbulent moments in the country’s history, such as the French Revolution.

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