There is a city within the bustling city of Buenos Aires where real estate costs a fortune. Space is tight but you get to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, with only foot traffic it is quiet and peaceful. The architecture is stunning as buildings are baroque, Gothic or downright whimsical. It sounds like a perfect community with just one wee drawback. You have to die to become a resident.
In case you haven’t guessed, we are talking about the City of the Dead otherwise known as Recoleta Cemetery. It may sound bizarre but spending a few hours exploring this place is a must when in Buenos Aires. You may indeed find yourself going back for a second visit just as we did.
The cemetery is surrounded by a high wall and filled with a grid of streets, mausoleums, crypts and statues. Here rest presidents, founding families, boxing champions and even Eva Peron whose crypt unassuming as it is, always has fresh flowers tucked in its ornate doorway from those wishing to pay their respect at this her final resting place.
The first impression upon walking through the entrance is of huge carefully maintained crypts, statutory and greenery. Venture into one of the side streets (which are signposted just like any city) and you will soon see that not all are created equal. Some of the mausoleums are impressive stone or marble carvings with a sliding trapdoor in a plinth at the base which leads down into the family vault where coffins are stacked in every available space and only see the light of day when it is time to see if they can squeeze in yet another.
The crypts vary in design, material and size. Black granite, white marble, plastered brickwork, stones and brass are all in use with some of the larger crypts resembling small ornate churches complete with statues and likenesses of the inhabitants.
Other crypts are more moderate affairs and consist of a small room with a deep shelf beneath which 2 or 4 caskets of lovingly polished wood and ornate gilt handles can be seen. These crypts often have ornate glass ceilings or stained glass windows (which can only be appreciated fully from inside) they also often have a metal grate on the floor which leads to the crypt beneath and the older caskets stored there.
Peeking through the ornate wrought iron doors you can spot statutory of Christ on the Cross or of Mary & Child, with vases of fresh flowers and in the most heart wrenching cases family photos of the residents. For me the most wrenching was the tiny little casket with teddy bears and baby photos propped against it intertwined with rosary beads.
Bought to tears by the sight of the little casket, I only became sad upon seeing the state of some of the crypts. Some are falling into disrepair due to fallen ceilings and the ingress of wind and rain; others appear to have been physically broken into and wilfully damaged, with defaced statues and upturned urns and boxes.
The common areas of the cemetery are maintained by an army of workers but maintenance of each crypt and mausoleum is the responsibility of the family it belongs to. It’s ironic to think that all the time, artistry, effort and money that went into building these ‘lasting’ memorials for a loved one and their descendants mean naught when there is no one left to care for them. A wander through this place is a firm reminder that nobody and nothing is immortal.
The most disturbing thing for me was not that we could see caskets (or even that some of them had slumped and were partially open) it was the garbage that was dumped in some of the more decrepit crypts. Yes styrofoam food containers and coke bottles littered those with broken doors, some even had empty pails of building materials adding to the dirty jumble left of what was once a place of memorial and love, yet crypts on either side where untouched and lovingly cared for.
This may sound totally morbid and depressing yet we would go again as each time we go we find something new. Like another stunning stained glass window or the beauty of the spider webs that adorn many a door and statue. Although the cemetery is surrounded by high rises and commercial buildings it is still an oasis of calm and peace. It’s a place to admire the art everywhere you turn, to sit and rest while contemplating your own immortality and to meet the cemetery cats who also share the City of the Dead.