The death in the bullring of one of the country's most promising young matadors has outlined starkly the extraordinary fascination that bullfighting, with its aura of tragedy and death, continues to hold over the Spanish people.

Thousands packed into Madrid's Monumental bullring this afternoon to bid a final goodbye to local son Jose Cubero, 21, who fought under the name Yiyo. He was gored in the heart and died Friday in a bullfight staged just outside the city.

It was the strangest of settings for a funeral and yet it was totally appropriate. It was in a bullring that Yiyo had died and it was to this vast arena in his home town that Yiyo's coffin was taken, borne on the shoulders of his admirers, for a final lap of honor between the requiem mass and burial in Madrid's main cemetery.

As the coffin entered the Monumental, people, standing shoulder to shoulder on the tiers, wept. They burst into sustained applause, shouted "Torero, Torero," and showered the coffin with bunches of red carnations.

The death of a matador in the ring is, in fact, a rare event. Yiyo was the sixth to be killed in the past 40 years. But Yiyo, the oldest son of a failed bullfighter who emigrated to France in the 1960s to find work, had for the past year been "obsessed with death," as a matador colleague put it.

It was this obsession, sensed by the Spanish people, together with his youth and good looks that made his death more poignant. Yiyo's tragic end has prompted an outburst of national grief.

The fatal goring Friday in the village of Colmenar Viejo was charged with ironic symbolism. The bull that killed Yiyo was itself dying from the matador's sword thrust.

It was just after the "moment of truth" -- the sword thrust -- when Yiyo appeared to lose his balance. He was gored in the back and suspended like a puppet. The bull released him and then rolled over dead while Yiyo -- his heart severed and his life draining away -- was rushed to the bullring's infirmary.

Yiyo's obsession with death stemmed from a bullfight in a southern Spanish village last September when he fought alongside superstar matador Francisco Rivera on another fateful afternoon. Paquirri, as Rivera was known, was killed by the bull, and it was Yiyo who finished off Paquirri's bull.

Ever since that bullfight, Yiyo had become increasingly introverted, even though critics said that his skills had improved and that his technique showed greater depth and maturity. He was fighting more frequently and beginning to fulfill his dream of fame and fortune.

Another promising young matador, Vicente Ruiz -- known as El Soro -- who also performed at Paquirri's last bullfight, choked back tears as he learned of Yiyo's fate. He told reporters that it all had to do "with our destiny."

For Spaniards the deaths within a year of Paquirri and Yiyo highlight the tragic dimensions of the bullfight and its grandeur in a way that few non-Spaniards can understand.

Far from prompting calls for an end to bullfighting, such deaths appear to strengthen it. Opponents of the bullfight point out that the crowds are drawn to the macabre, but Spaniards see it differently.

The conservative Madrid newspaper ABC said today in an editorial that the two deaths had shown the bullfight to be "one of the great truths that remain in our national life." The argument is that if the dangers of injury and death disappear, then bullfighting is senseless.

Outside Spain, bullfighting is under fire as never before. The European Parliament is being lobbied to put an end to bullfights following Spain's formal entry into the European Community.

Spanish officials concede that bullfighting gives Spain a negative image abroad, but no political party has indicated that it would implement a ban. Inside Spain the bullfight is enjoying something of a golden age, and to judge from the sold-out fights at regional festivals this season, it is as popular as ever.

The extraordinary outpouring of sentiment today, however, was marred by the whiff of a scandal. An irony of the latest "death in the afternoon" is the fact that Yiyo had been called at the last moment to substitute for well-established millionaire matador Curro Romero, who pulled out of Friday's fight, reportedly because of an injury.

The fight impresario, Angel Luis Pena, charged in a radio interview that Romero had, in fact, refused to fight "because I did not allow the bulls' horns to be shaved.