Saturday, February 5, 2011

City of the dead

While Santiago's wealth is expressed in its gleaming glass sky scrapers, Buenos Aires displays riches in the form of old stone mansions... and graves.

There is a saying in Argentina that it costs more to die than it does to live. If it is your final wish to be laid to rest in La Recoleta Cemetery then there is no denying that you better have done some serious financial planning.

The 4800 above-ground vaults that form Buenos Aires' most exclusive departed neighborhood produce a marble city of individualistic tombs adorned with domes, statues and pillars. The streets of these unique graves are truly a remarkable --if slightly creepy-- place to walk among.

About half of the vaults display a small alter with flowers, Christian art or even a photo of the deceased behind their glass pane doors and windows. There is then a trap door or steep flight of stairs that leads below ground to the small crypt that contains the coffin. Other monuments, however, have the coffin openly on display, covered with just a white lace burial shroud. Presumably, the bodies are all embalmed and this negates the need for a six foot deep grave.

Not all of the buildings are in a state of good repair. A number have had their glass facades broken and gravel scatters their floors, dirtying the white cloths over alter and coffin. Whether this is from the city equivalent of tomb raiding or merely a product of neglect is not obvious. It was these broken vaults I found the most disconcerting. The idea that your family line might dwindle away, yet your remains still endure, was unsettling. Personally, I plan to fade with the daises. (Everyone take note of that. No million dollar crypts. Thanks.)

What I found most surprising was that not all of the vaults are old. Some are very recent including the resting place of Raul Alfonsin, the Argentinian president who died in 2009. Originally, the desire to preserve the body in such a way came from belief in a bodily resurrection. The marble entrance to the cemetery reads "expectamus dominum", we wait for God. Now, the exclusiveness of this burial grounds acts more as a status symbol for the living than suitable preparations for the dead.

For most movie-going non-Argentinians, the most famous person in La Recoleta Cemetery is Maria Eva Duarte de Peron or, to use her more common nickname, Evita (top right photo). It is perhaps ironic that she is placed here, among the richest in Argentina, since she was deeply unpopular with that demographic due to her support of the lower classes. Indeed, the fact her family have a vault here at all is surprising, since her father left when Evita was one year old to return to his 'legal' --that is the woman he was married to-- family, leaving her mother and four siblings impoverished.

Evita grew up to become an actress before marrying Juan Peron, who was shortly after elected president of Argentina. Through him, she became interested in politics and was a great advocate for the rights of the poor. There was huge support among the less wealthy for her to run for vice president but she declined due to ill health; a condition that saw her dead from cervical cancer only months later at the age of 33.

After death, Evita's body continues to lead an exciting... existence. At first, it was displayed in Argentina but, with her husband's fall from power, was secretly moved to Milan in Italy and buried under the false name, Maria Maggi. This was revealed 16 years later and the body was exhumed to take up residence on the dining table of her husband and his new wife in Spain. Personally, as the new wife, I might have found this a problem, but perhaps it made a talking point at breakfast.

Finally, after her husband's death, Evita was laid in La Recoleta Cemetery. Due to fears that her body would be stolen, her coffin is under two trap doors and below two other coffins. The other occupants of the vault are presumably family members... or decoys ... wikipedia at least appears vague on this point.

It is odd to say that the most fascinating location in a city is its cemetery. However, there is no denying one spectacular advantage of this location, given our experiences the day before:

The departed do not pick your pockets.

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