I had my first cemetery-history-lesson in Bastos, a rural town in Sao Paulo state. My host, a young 3rd generation Japanese-Brazilian, took me on a chronological tour to show how the immigrant-founded community changed over time. Early graves were Buddhist with obelisk tombstones covered in Kanji and framed photos of the deceased. In the 1950s and 60s, names like Eduardo Fujisaki and Beatrice Suzuki began appearing on tombstones, demonstrating that the townspeople had begun identifying as Brazilian. The newest headstones’ text were Portuguese with Christian elements like crosses and angels, signaling further cultural integration. It was an eye-opening experience that prompted a habit of visiting cemeteries as I travel the world.
While vacationing as a couple, Rodrigo and I have visited cemeteries in Kauai, New Orleans, Paris and Venice. Our visit to Pere Lachaise was, appropriately, on a rainy, gloomy day. With free-from-the-metro newspapers to cover our heads, we determinedly sought out the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. In Venice, we made a day trip of it, packing a picnic and catching a Vaporetto to the island-cemetery of St. Michele. Rodrigo sketched while I wandered the park-like setting, admiring the statues and wishing I could make rubbings of the tombstones.
So when we added Buenos Aires to our Around the World itinerary, I was thrilled to read about Recoleta Cemetery, with its many-styled above-ground mausoleums, elaborate (and priceless!) statuary, and long list of famous dead people. I was most excited to see the Art-Deco tombs and the final resting place of Argentina’s beloved “Evita”. The kids, to be honest, were a little creeped-out by the idea, but once we arrived and they got over their sense-of-unease, they were fascinated.
Recoleta is a true necropolis with tree-lined “boulevards", smaller "streets" and even smaller "alleys". Architect-designed mausoleums lined the passageways like row-houses built one right next to the other. In some cases, families bought large enough plots that their tombs didn't touch others, and might have had a bench for the living to sit on when they come visit. On the day we were there – November 1, Day of the Dead – family members and hired help were busy sweeping out the tombs, scrubbing down the cobblestones, and freshening up flowers.
The mausoleums were built to house entire families. Peeking inside, we saw coffins stacked on shelves in the upper levels and teeny-tiny staircases leading to even more burial space below. According to our guide, one Recoleta tomb contains multiple generations – dozens of family members – although 5-20 is closer to the norm. In some eras, the coffins were covered with beautiful white cloths edged in hand-crafted lace, although many were deteriorated and raggedy, adding to the spook-factor.
The abundance of gorgeous artwork is another fascinating element of this historic site. Magnificently detailed wrought-iron fences and locks protect the dead, along with stone statues of angels, soldiers, and faithful dogs. Bas-relief plaques decorate the tombs’ exteriors commemorating the deceased’s community service, careers or heritage. Stained glass windows facing in to the tombs can be glimpsed through open gates and windows. One modern mausoleum had a skylight that brightened the interior so much that orchids bloomed cheerily within. We spotted a carved stone skull with eyes like Mona Lisa’s, they followed us as we strolled past, and discovered that the white ribbons tied to one tomb’s gate were an homage to a sorrowful scene in an Argentinian romance movie.
It’s no wonder that Recoleta cemetery is one of Buenos Aires’s most-visited sites. Cemeteries are a unique resource for travelers; they offer a glimpse of a city’s social norms and cultural habits, are a 3-D history lesson, and house amazing art and architectural pieces. As we continued our Around The World trip, we kept adding cemeteries to our sight-seeing plans, knowing we’d learn something uniquely interesting in each location.
Links about Recoleta Cemetery:
Other cemeteries we visited on our RTW trip:
Ancient cemetery of Kerameikos in Athens
Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh (where J.K. Rowling found names for some of her Harry Potter characters)