When I was younger I used to visit this cemetery at the top of my street. It was very small, hardly bigger than a courtyard, and tucked away behind some bushes. There was a rusting gate that was never locked and overgrown grass obscuring some of the graves that were just markers in the ground. In the summer, I would go there and read every headstone, figuring out how old people were when they died and making up stories about their lives. As a kid who loved history, I found this cemetery more interesting than scary, particularly since most of the stones dated back to the early twentieth, maybe even late-nineteenth century (to my tween self, that was practically the stone age).
My interest in the past has never faded. It’s the reason I still get a thrill up my spine every time I touch an old building and imagine the hundreds of others who stood there before me in the exact same spot seeing what I see and hearing what I hear. Although the architecture in South America is really not that old, especially by European standards, there are two fascinating cemeteries in Chile and Argentina that have a more unusual burial style and house some of the figures who helped define these countries.
The Cementerio General in Santiago is gigantic. I have no idea how many people are buried there (Google tells me approximately two million) but it’s large enough that it’s divided into neighbourhoods. Inside each neighbourhood, the most common graves are “apartment-style.” (Uh, Addy? Apartment-style? Yes, apartment-style.) Rather than each person having his or her individual plot of land six feet under, the dead are housed in their own above-ground “apartment.” A basic apartment and inscription costs $1000 USD. A star signifies the date of birth (when it is known) and a cross signifies the date of death. For an additional fee, you can add some ornamentation, stone-work or fancy lettering to your apartment, decorating it however you like. One of the free walking tours I did of Santiago with Tours for Tips included a tour of the cemetery. My guide said that the record number of people he had seen inside one apartment was eleven.
Let me repeat: without the use of cremation, there could be up to eleven people inside one of these tiny boxes. ELEVEN. If you’re at all like me, you’re probably wondering how this is possible. Well, when the bodies naturally begin to decompose, the coffin is removed and all the human bits are gathered together and put in a much smaller box. There’s still room for another coffin in front of this smaller box so each decaying body is eventually transferred to the smaller box to make room for a fresh body in the same tomb. The reason for this is half practical and half sentimental. As long as a person is Chilean and can afford the price, he or she can be buried in the national cemetery, but $1000 USD is a lot of money for some families. By sharing a gravesite, a lower income family can cut down on burial costs. On the sentimental side, some people like the idea of their final resting place being with their ancestors and loved ones. (Personally, I think being locked in a tiny room with my family forever sounds very much like Sartre’s No Exit, but I digress.)
Interestingly, although they’re neighbouring countries, the cemetery in Buenos Aires has a much different feel to the one in Santiago. While there are a handful of apartment-style graves towards the back, the majority of tombs are quite ornate, purchased by remarkably wealthy individuals in the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century. The cemetery itself is located in the middle of Recoleta, one of the wealthier neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. Most of the tomb-houses have locks on the doors, but windows that allow the curious traveler a glimpse inside. The majority of coffins are raised up on elevated biers or are centrally placed in the middle of the floor. Some tombs look well cared for, with dusted photographs inside, roses or other mementos. Others look as though they have been all but abandoned, covered in dust or spiderwebs, with cracked or broken windows and litter on the ground.
The celebrities of each cemetery are also quite interesting. The grave of Salvador Allende, whose career and mysterious death I briefly described in my post about Santiago, is located in Chile’s general cemetery. The tomb is simple but massive, paid for by the post-Pinochet Chilean government and surrounded by members of Chile’s elite.
Similarly, the major draw of the cemetery in Buenos Aires is the tomb of Eva Peron. Eva – affectionately known as Evita – was First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death from cancer in 1952. During her tenure as First Lady, she campaigned tirelessly for labour rights and was immensely popular with low income and working class Argentines. Despite her own humble origins (Evita herself was born in a rural village), there were plans following her death to construct a memorial in her honour. However, before the memorial could be completed, Juan Peron was overthrown in a military coup and forced to flee the country. Evita’s body was relocated by the new government and buried secretly in Milan under a false name. It took over sixteen years for the whereabouts of her body to become known and for her to be exhumed back to Buenos Aires to the Duarte family tomb.
Given a choice between the two, I personally prefer the cemetery in Santiago. You will see people visiting their deceased loved ones and it’s easy to get lost among the stones and stories. The Recoleta cemetery, on the other hand, is much smaller and feels more like a tourist attraction. But if you want to see some beautiful sculpture and some remarkable tombs, you really can’t go wrong with either.
Don’t forget your ouija board…