Picture it. Rural Sardinia in the 19th century. An elderly man is on his deathbed, ailing, and too old or disabled to be moved to a hospital many kilometers away. His family is struggling to care for him. So they invite the Femmina Accabadora, an elderly but sharp and capable woman, into their home either to comfort him until his dying breath or to bring about a quick end.
This is the legend of the Femmina Accabadora, Sardinia’s Lady of the Good Death, who may or may not have existed. But the name, derived from s’agabbadóra (“she who ends”) or, in Sardinian, s’acabbu (“the end”), has long been enough to instill fear among the young and old.
I learned about the Accabadora — also written as Femina Accabadora, Agabbadòra, or Agabbadora — while in Gallura in northeast Sardinia where her legend is strong. Historians are undecided about whether the Femina Accabadora existed. But Piergiacomo Pala, director of the Museo Galluras, is convinced that the Accabadora was more than a figure from Sardinian folklore. His evidence? An olive wood mallet, the lightweight but effective tool that the Accabadora would use to swiftly bring a sick or elderly person’s life to an end.
While the Femmina Accabadora is frightful, she is also known as a provider of a “good death” because her service was considered valuable and humane during a time when more clinical forms of euthanasia were not available. There are other legends of figures who assisted in the deaths of the elderly and infirm in other parts of Italy, particularly in the south (Campania and Puglia), and in Greece. In fact, the practice may have originated in Greece and spread throughout the Hellenic world, including southern Italy. “Euthanasia” means good or easy death in Greek.
Here’s Ivana Malu of Forti Eventi Excursions (an absolutely terrific tour guide and story teller) explaining how the Femmina Accabadora carried out her deathly duty:
Museo Galluras Director Pala has compiled a book of testimonials (available on the museum’s website) from those who can recall from their youth the presence of the Femmina Accabadora in their villages.
But another book about the Accabadora legend, this an award-winning fictional tale, is one you will definitely want to read. Here’s the synopsis:
At one time betrothed to a fallen soldier, Bonaria Urrai of Sardinia has a long-held covenant with the dead. Midwife to the dying, easing their suffering and sometimes ending it, she is revered and feared in equal measure as her village’s Accabadora. When Bonaria adopts Maria, the unloved fourth child of a widow, she tries to shield the girl from the truth about her role as an angel of mercy.Accabadora: A Novel by Michela Murgia