In honor of Halloween, el Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead, closely associated with Mexico), and the Catholic Church’s All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, today’s photo tour will take you on a brief trip through Recoleta Cemetery in the heart of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Recoleta Cemetery really is a site to be seen, for several reasons. First, there’s the history. The cemetery, which was the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, was founded on November 17, 1822. Its grounds, which house between 4,800 and 6,400 vaults, depending on who you talk to, include the sacred burial places of major players in Argentine history: politicians, writers, military leaders, former presidents, sculptors, explorers, priests, athletes, and more.
Among the most famous is María Eva Duarte de Perón, or Evita, considered by many to be the nation’s spiritual leader. (Many Porteños, as Buenos Aires’ natives are called, talked to me, unsolicited, about Eva Perón’s role in helping Argentine women gain the right to vote.) After a 20-year odyssey to make it to this resting point, Evita’s body lies more than five meters under a mausoleum that’s heavily fortified to ensure that she is never disturbed again. Less well-known are the cemetery’s first two “residents”: Juan Benito, a young Black child freed from slavery, and María Dolores Maciel.
Apart from the history, there’s the art of it. Recoleta is rightly considered a world treasure of sculpture and funeral architecture. Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, Greek Doric, Neo-Gothic and who-knows-what-else styles are represented. It’s hard to take it in, especially since the tight streets make it difficult to back far enough away from most of the sculpture to get perspective.
Last but not least, there’s the creep factor. Even on a gorgeously sunny day like the one on which we visited, it’s hard not to feel slightly weird about walking through what is quite literally a city of the dead. The cemetery takes up 54,843 square meters, or more than four city blocks. A map is necessary in order to navigate the labyrinth of narrow streets and avenues on which mausoleums seem to close in from all sides. Some of the mausoleums are meticulously cared for; others have long been abandoned. Among the latter, broken or missing glass in the doors gives an open view to the dusty coffins that are sometimes being slowly overtaken by creeping vines or more quickly by workmen who are using the coffin rooms to store their supplies. Sometimes one can see doors in the floor that lead to additional burial spaces. Views of the cemetery from above show the vents that provide air to these tight rooms. At all points, it’s impossible to deny that you are indeed walking among the dead.
Today, a burial spot in Recoleta will cost you, big time. Honestly, I can’t imagine where there would even be enough space. When I’m dead, you can donate my aged (hopefully) old body to science, thank you.