Digging to Roam

The Silent City of the Dead – La Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires

The silent city of the dead, it sounds like the title to the newest horror flick, it may be the title to a scary movie actually. The sunny city of Buenos Aires doesn’t conjure up images of eerie ghosts and creepy foggy mornings, but there is a city of the dead here and it is exactly as one might imagine. La Recoleta Cemetery is the final resting place of some of Argentina’s most prominent people. The cemetery is situated on 14 acres of land where thousands of above ground tombs have been built. The vaults vary particularly in ornateness, and visitors can wander through the winding alleys of the cemetery as if traversing a miniature city. Each vault looks like a tiny version of a house or a church, some with grandiose statues and intricate carvings and others with crumbling bricks and rusted roofs.

La Recoleta Cemetery is isolated from the outside by immensely high walls, the separation settles the air and silences the city noise. Even with the hundreds of thousands of visitors that walk its hallowed paths yearly, once you wander from the entry path you feel alone and isolated amongst the silent houses of the long gone. The architecture that you encounter at every turn is incredibly eclectic. Here you will find everything from Mediterranean-styled tombs to Egyptian tombs to classic Grecian temples. The lasting upkeep of the mausoleums varies just as much, some have broken glass in their doors, broken statues fallen by the wayside, while others are pristinely polished and commemorated by flowers recently left by visitors.

I spent the better part of a day there and barely scratched the surface of what there is to explore. In the beginning we wandered down the major paths, turning now and again when something caught our eye. By the end I was aimlessly walking through the smallest alleyways, feeling like I’d be caught in the twilight zone where homes were shrunk and all the people had vanished. Besides the other visitors, of which its easy to see few of, you are surrounded by various statues. Sometimes the statues are of angels or animals, while other times the statues are commemorating a person who was laid to rest at La Recoleta Cemetery. Enough time in the maze and you may begin to feel the presences of those souls radiating off their replicas.

Evita’s Tomb

If you look up a map online or buy one for 10 pesos at the gate, you can look for some of the most famous mausoleums. María Eva Duarte de Perón, or better known as Evita or simply Eva Perón is buried here. It is one of the most sought out tombs and when I saw it there was such a crowd I was only able to get a small picture of her plaque. The only thing that makes her family’s tomb distinct from others is the abundance of flowers that well wishers leave, brightening up the otherwise dark crypt. The thousands of people buried here mean that there are thousands of stories to be told. Some are classic stories of long lives and peaceful deaths, while others are more shocking.

The tomb of Lilina Crociati de Szaszak

Rufina Cambacérès was buried alive here. Yes, buried alive. The year was 1902 and the young Rufina was preparing for an evening on the town when she collapsed, for reasons unknown. Doctors pronounced her dead and she was put into a tomb at Recoleta Cemetery. What happened next is everyone’s worst nightmare. Someone working at the cemetery noticed that her coffin had moved and the lid was broken, he thought grave robbers had ransacked the tomb. He opened the broken coffin and found the now dead body of Rufina, covered in bruises and the lid of the coffin covered in her scratch marks. She hadn’t died as the doctors said, but only died from being locked in the coffin. The fear, exhaustion, and utter shock that she experienced is what caused her untimely death. Then there is Lilina Crociati de Szaszak who died in 1970. Her tomb stands out and it reminded me of the style in Tim Burton’s animated films. She died young, at the age of 26. The young woman was killed by an avalanche in Austria that destroyed the hotel she was in. Her mother designed the crypt, its neo-gothic architecture is unique amongst its neighbors. The statue that stands of her with a dog, is a life size depiction of the real Liliana Crociati de Szaszak and her dog Sabú.

What is perhaps most striking is the contrast between the gorgeous Argentine weather and the solemness of the cemetery. It’s a reverent place with a somber air, but at the same time it makes death feel not so distant and not so scary. The tombs are beautifully designed and if you are there in the spring or summer, the trees are blooming. There are around 80 cats roaming the cemetery, they even have their own website. I imagine there is a much different feel in the cemetery when the air is colder and the sky is darker. Such a place has so many stories, you can’t help but feel the weight of them while wandering down the pathways.

Kristance Harlow

November 5, 2013

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2 Comments

  1. mplanck on November 5, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    What a spooky but edifying tour. Such a tragic end for the poor young woman buried alive! Makes me think of the bells once installed in coffins in London, so that should someone be buried alive and waken, he or she could ring the bell and summon help. It is either strange or completely natural that we welcome the birth of babies and mourn the passing of individuals; yet we emerge from and

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