Time to celebrate!! Recoleta Cemetery has been in operation for 200 years as of today! I’d hoped to make it back to Buenos Aires for such a special event, but Rafa & I are currently in Iowa visiting my aunt… family duty for the living calls 🙂
But I’m definitely there in spirit. How could I not be? By investigating the cemetery’s past, I’ve learned so much about Argentina. And instead of death, what fascinates me most are the lifetimes of those who rest in peace in Recoleta Cemetery. How families choose to be remembered as well as lessons to learn for the future are vital to understanding how the nation has grown.
Next week I’ll post as many news reports about any event that takes place. Marcelo received the following invitation & plans to attend, so we’ll share his observations & photos too.
But this month also holds another special anniversary: 15 years of blogging about Recoleta Cemetery! With all the twists & turns of my own life, I’m not sure how I’ve been able to keep publishing new content regularly… even after moving away from Argentina in 2015. If you look back to the beginning, the first post dates from 03 Oct 2007 —but I backposted to have more to read on launch in November. Sneaky.
Although I’ve yet to publish all my photos of Recoleta Cemetery nor shared all its stories, these joint anniversaries are the perfect moment to pause & take a break. I won’t be posting new content monthly, but AfterLife will remain online… hopefully forever! It’s too valuable as an English-language resource to remove from the internet.
I will continue to update theRecoleta Cemetery map & guide as often as necessary; the PDF will always remain current. And if an important event happens, of course I’ll cover it here. I may even write a few new entries from time to time. But other projects require my attention at the moment, so AfterLife will remain on hold until further notice.
I’ve had lots of fun showing thousands of people around one of the most intriguing cemeteries in the world —full of so much more than invented ghost stories or questionable interpretations of symbolism. Appearing on the GlobeTrekker television program was a definite highlight! Support from families with mausoleums in Recoleta Cemetery has been for the most part positive & very much appreciated. I’d also like to thank Marcelo Metayer for his invaluable assistance with writing, photography & overall support. Couldn’t have done this mega-project without you, Mar!
If you visit Recoleta Cemetery this year, think about how it might look over the next 200 years.¡Gracias a todos!
Born in 1866 in Lanciego —a small town in the southern Basque region of Álava, near the border with La Rioja— Lorenzo Fernández de Viana began his artistic career as a cabinet maker… but soon moved on to bigger & better things. After obtaining grants to study in Madrid & Paris, he returned to the local capital of Vitoria to open the only sculpture workshop in the city. As a result, his art decorates the new cathedral & he even taught aspiring students.
Viana left it all for Argentina in 1912, accompanied by his three daughters. His timing could not have been more perfect, with Argentina booming & numerous cities requesting European artists to decorate the nation. Viana’s stay in America was brief, but he left behind works in Mar de Plata & Buenos Aires. Gaze up to the Constitución train station to find representations of Agriculture & Commerce… fitting since this was the gateway to the Pampas (photo below). On their return to the Basque Country in 1916, his family moved to Bilbao where Viana passed away ten years later in 1926.
During the height of the pandemic, the Museum of Fine Arts in Álava found this blog & requested to use photos from the tomb of Adolfo Alsina in an upcoming exhibition. Viana was responsible for several reliefs depicting scenes from Alsina’s life. Always happy to assist, I was pleased to contribute & receive a catalog. If you’re in Vitoria, visit the free exhibition because they’ve done a wonderful job in rescuing the memory of such a great artist (runs until 20 Mar 2022).
Perhaps the most difficult issue to overcome is access to previous publications about the cemetery. Print runs in Argentina are notoriously small, often around 3,000 copies… in a capital city with almost 15 million people & a national population of 45 million! During the 14 years I lived there, I’d scout bookstores each month with the hope of obtaining new resources before they disappeared from sight. Much like a treasure hunt —fun but not practical for most researchers.
Libraries presented another problem: source material spread across the entire city with incomplete collection catalogs. After finding a good publication, I would scour the bibliography for additional leads. However, sources mentioned were often unavailable, in private collections or worse, completely missing. Also, most library staff had insufficient knowledge of holdings or lacked initiative to help users discover additional information. Budget cuts also affected operating hours. Navigating the system took more time than actual reading!
Fortunately the digital age has improved the availability of early texts about Recoleta Cemetery. A recent search on Scribd revealed two gems from the 1990s that I never found in physical form…
Although without a publication date, Recoleta: Cementerio, Arte e Historia contains a prologue signed by Fernando de la Rúa… acting as head of the Buenos Aires city government. That means this 36-page booklet had to be published sometime between 1996 & 1999. Also oddly missing is the author’s name; credit goes to a large number of public officials.
What a shame this publication was not reedited or reproduced in later years! I would have loved an introduction like this on my first cemetery visit. After a brief overview, a hand-drawn map —with correct dimensions— marks 50 tombs of interest. If the route were followed by number, quite a bit of backtracking would be involved. But that’s a minor issue.
Text for each point of interest is brief but with good & surprisingly neutral information about people who were often anything but neutral 😉 Interesting photographs accompany most descriptions. An updated version of this guide in several languages would have been a best-seller at the cemetery entrance gate during the tourism boom of the early 2000s:
Unfortunately this publication has been delegated to the city government’s library & will likely never return.
Issue #5 published by the Board of Historic Studies of Recoleta (Junta de Estudios Históricos de La Recoleta) had a complicated title… something akin to “Recoleta Cemetery: Unraveling its Sites”. The 1970s witnessed a birth of local historical associations, often composed of self-appointed elite who supported a particular vision of their neighborhood. Cemetery heritage director Carlos Francavilla co-authored this 42-page booklet with architect Victor Villasuso. 63 points of interest dot their map marked with a very clear walking route:
Descriptive text & photographs do not mingle; each have their own dedicated pages. In general, mausoleums receive elaborate architectural explanations —so much so that a glossary is included at the end— while occupants & their deeds are secondary.
While interesting for its choice of mausoleums (several of which are rarely mentioned in other guidebooks), overly simple design makes this publication difficult to use as does such grandiloquent language. Oddly cropped photographs also fail to highlight the beauty of mausoleums. Consider this a secondary resource for those interested in lengthy architectural descriptions rather than a practical guide.
This article appeared in the online edition of the Kennesaw State University official student newspaper. Although this Georgia university publication has received awards & praise, there are a few major errors in this article that warrant some fact-checking & revision…
Cemetery built in Buenos Aires due to yellow fever to sell with Covid
In 1871, Buenos Aires experienced a serious health crisis. Struck by yellow fever, the Argentine capital saw the only two cemeteries in the city at the time overflowing at the very start of the epidemic.
Faced with death figures rising to 700 a day, authorities saw no other solution than to hastily open a new cemetery – that of Chacarita, which ended up receiving most of the 18,000 victims. of disease. At the time, Buenos Aires had no more than 180,000 inhabitants.
Our comment: City historians generally estimate the number of yellow fever victims as 14,000, or 10% of the population of Buenos Aires, with burials taking place first in the Southern Cemetery & later in Chacarita Cemetery.
Today, 150 years later, expanded and with new areas intended only for those killed by the coronavirus, Chacarita cemetery is once again on the edge. The employees, members of the park and cemetery workers union, have asked the Ministry of Labor to be vaccinated as soon as possible, otherwise they will participate in a nationwide strike and stop collecting bodies and taking them to their graves.
“We were classified as essential from the first moment because we had to keep working to keep the flow of burials going. Now, at the time of vaccination, we are not considered essential and we go to the end of the line,” says Folha Salvador Valente, from Soecra (Union of Cemeteries Workers and Employees of the Argentine Republic).
“It’s not fair, we are much more exposed than the general population, we are on the front lines, as doctors, and we have already lost many colleagues.”
Our comment: The SOECRA union secretary is Salvador Valente. Folha is a Portuguese word that means “leaf”, “sheet of paper” or “page”. Oh, I know where this is going…
A first request for priority vaccination and additional protective equipment, made in January, was refused by the government. For this reason, cemetery workers returned to register the same demand this week, now with the threat of a strike. If it is a national problem, it is in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, epicenter of the pandemic in Argentina, that the situation is most serious.
The traditional cemetery of Recoleta has been crowded for some time and today it functions more as an open-air museum, as it no longer receives new burials. There is also a more popular cemetery in the Flores neighborhood – another opening up an exclusive area for the dead by Covid – which, like Chacarita, is saturated.
Our comment: Completely false that Recoleta Cemetery no longer receives new burials. It is still a functioning cemetery.
La Chacarita is the largest in the city in activity and one of the most emblematic of the Argentine capital. He buried the idol of the tango Carlos Gardel, the writer Roberto Arlt, the plastic artist Antonio Berni and the composer Enrique Santos Discépolo, among other celebrities.
The cemetery also housed the body of Juan Domingo Perón for many years, until his grave was attacked, and the hands of the former president uprooted and stolen, in 1987. The reason for the crime and the fate of the Perón’s hands remain unknown, in another mysterious story of local politics.
“Chacarita is an Argentinian heritage. It is the cemetery that is home to popular culture icons, football players, tangueiros, actors, in addition to Perón to a certain extent. [após o sequestro das mãos, o resto do corpo foi levado a uma propriedade particular da família]“If the Recoleta cemetery is that of the aristocratic elite of the 19th century, that of Chacarita is that of popular culture,” says historian Felipe Pigna.
Our comment: More random Portuguese! So this article was lifted from the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. But why use a Brazil source for an article about Argentina? Odd to say the least.
For the researcher, it is important to preserve the cemetery both as a place of functioning and as a memory of the porteños. “As much as the current pandemic is causing great suffering to the city, we must remember the nightmare of yellow fever and how frightened the people were. At that time, it was not known that the disease was transmitted by a mosquito. There was an important crisis policy and even the president [Domingo Faustino] Sarmiento left town, “Pugna recalls.” Buenos Aires was in charge of a commission of notables, doctors, politicians, who were also dying.
The historian recalls that at that time, the so-called “death train” also circulated in the city, a locomotive of a wagon that crossed the Argentine capital to pick up the dead from their homes.
Valente, from the cemetery workers union, recalls that today they collect corpses from their homes and accompany them to the grave. “Due to the current protocol, only a loved one can be present at the funeral, in addition to one of our employees. In other words, our role in this pandemic is essential,” he recalls. “There are private funeral homes that had to close because all the employees were infected. We are working overtime and at our limit. We want the vaccine so that we don’t have to interrupt our work.
In response, the government claims to be assessing demand, but Argentina suffers from a vaccine shortage. The main government contract with the Russian laboratory Gamaleia has been delayed and deliveries of the Sputnik V immunizer are taking too long. Likewise, drugs purchased from AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinopharm arrive in smaller quantities than promised.
So far Argentina has only vaccinated 15% of the population with one dose and 2% with both.
Glaring errors aside, cemetery workers should be considered frontline workers just like health care providers. They provide an essential service in normal times & even more so during a pandemic.
As the coronavirus makes its way to Argentina, staff at Recoleta Cemetery are taking preventative measures to ensure everyone’s health & safety. As of 13 Mar 2020, the cemetery is CLOSED until further notice to all tourists. Below are two official communiques from Recoleta Cemetery:
We’ll let you know when they reopen, but in the meantime feel free to take a virtual visit by scanning through over 550 posts on this blog. More important: stay healthy & respect recommendations by health care officials. Recoleta Cemetery will be waiting for you when this health emergency ends!
Update (Dec 2021): Recoleta Cemetery is now open for all visitors & with regular hours of operation!