The dead do tell tales

An afternoon stroll through one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.


WORDS AND IMAGES  B.L. MARCELO

Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires is a mainstay in lists of most beautiful cemeteries. During the golden hour — when the shadows are long and the sun hits the concrete angels and weeping women that guard the esteemed departed of Argentina — anxiety flees in the face of awe.

Located in Recoleta, a city of great cultural import due to its museums and universities, the cemetery has shade-giving evergreen trees, benches, and toilets — amenities meant for tourists rather than La Recoleta’s long-time residents. It is safe and clean; no vagrants, save for cats, have moved into the elaborate mausoleums that sometimes reach three storeys. The arc that serves as the cemetery’s entrance leads to a central main road, which, in turn, leads to a rotunda with smaller, radial paths. The layout, designed by a French civil engineer, is cut into sections like municipal blocks. Even those afflicted with directional dyslexia should be able to find their way back to the central path with ease. La Recoleta is a city unto itself, populated by the affluent and expired. Architecture spans several movements — Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic — to idiosyncratic, as in the tomb of Gen. Tomás Guido, which resembles a pile of rocks (there is a poignant story behind it: the general’s son supposedly built the structure with his bare hands, one stone at a time).

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The tomb of Manuel Pedro Quintana y Saez Gaona, President of Argentina from 1904 – 1906.
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The tomb of Alejo Julio Argentino Roca Paz, an army general who served as President from 1880 – 1886 and from 1898 – 1904.

 A number of famous sculptors were responsible for the busts and funerary statues that abound in La Recoleta. Jules Coutan, the Frenchman behind Glory of Commerce in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and The Eagle Hunters in the facade of the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, also did the angel figures for the tomb of Argentine brigadier general José María Paz. Lola Mora, an Argentine sculptor and pioneering female artist, did the sculptures for the López Lecube family, who were wealthy landowners. Victor del Pol, an Italian who made a pair of saber-toothed Smilodon at the entrance of La Plata Museum in Argentina, was commissioned by President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento to design his final resting place. Luis Perlotti, an Argentine of Italian descent, sculpted the likenesses of boxer Luis Angel Firpo (smirking, in a robe); war minister Pablo Riccheri (stoic, leaning on his saber); and Governor Juan Lavalle (also stoic, also holding a saber).

Near the cemetery’s entrance is a map that marks more than a hundred graves of interest, among them several that have been declared state-protected National Historical Monuments. Per the official citation, “it is the unavoidable duty of the Argentine people to demonstrate their gratitude to those who, for their public or private activity, made possible the current greatness of the nation… obliging the national government to watch over the maintenance and care of the sepulchers where their remains are kept.” Argentina’s history is buried in La Recoleta. One can start with an eye-catching tomb and a name, and end up with a deeper understanding of the country’s past and its contributions to the world. 

There’s Luis Federico Leloir (no. 48), owner of one of the tallest tombs in the cemetery, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of metabolic pathways in lactose; Adolfo Bioy Casares (no. 85), an author who befriended and became a frequent collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges (who, incidentally, is not buried in La Recoleta but in Switzerland); Victoria Ocampo (no. 82), a writer and intellectual described by Borges as “la mujer mas Argentina” (the quintessential Argentine woman); Eduardo Lonardi (no. 28), the leader of the Revolución Libertadora junta that overthrew the Perons; and William (or Guillermo in the local tongue) Brown (no. 9), the Father of the Argentine Navy, who is regarded as one of Argentina’s national heroes despite being Irish born.

For every president, poet, and plutocrat buried in La Recoleta there is also a poor soul lost to fortune’s whimsy. Forgotten tombs, identified by cobwebs, broken glass, and dilapidated coffins bear witness to a family’s fluctuating status. The once-wealthy who could afford extravagant burials are now too poor to maintain their cherub-encrusted sepulchers. Either that, or they have no one left in the land of living to care for them. Incidentally, you can buy a used vault for US$35,000 on Mercado Libre, Argentina’s version of eBay.

For the curious, La Recoleta is a rabbit-hole that leads to both epic narratives covering swaths of Argentina’s history and touching vignettes of undetermined veracity. The most tragic is that of Rufina Cambacérès, whose tomb shows a young woman descending the steps, one hand still on the door. According to the story, Cambacérès was buried alive. And so it goes. There are many, many more tales waiting in La Recoleta. It is ironic that the least ostentatious tomb in the cemetery — a black box embellished with fresh flowers — tells the most famous tale of all: that of María Eva Duarte de Perón, lovingly called Evita (no. 88).


INCIDENTAL INTELLIGENCE

La Recoleta Cemetery

Calle Junín 1790 (Plaza Francia) Recoleta

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Tel: (54) 11 4804-7040 or (54) 11 7803-1594

Free entrance. Free tours in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m.

While the cemetery is least crowded in the morning, it is the prettiest at around 3 p.m. –  4 p.m. The cemetery had its blessing withdrawn by the Catholic Church in 1863, when President Bartolomé Mitre ordered that a suicide be buried there.