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Category: Symbols

447. living meaning of cemeteries

Life magazine, W. Lloyd Warner, Margaret Bourke-White, 1949

American anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner wrote the following in “The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans,” first published in 1959 (emphasis mine):

When cemeteries no longer receive fresh burials which continue to tie the emotions of the living to the recently dead & thereby connect the living in a chain of generations to an early ancestry, the graveyards must lose their sacred quality & become objects of historical ritual. The lifetime of individuals & the living meanings of cemeteries are curiously interdependent, for both are dependent on an ascription of sacred meaning bestowed upon them by those who live. The symbols of death say what life is and those of life define what death must be. The meanings of man’s fate are forever what he makes them…

This distinction between “active” & “dead” cemeteries & how their significance changes to those who are living is very interesting in the case of Recoleta Cemetery because it receives so much tourism. It straddles the line between Warner’s sacred symbol & historic site. While guiding, I would always remind visitors to be respectful because it is indeed a functioning cemetery & we often witnessed funeral ceremonies. As two distinct groups of people inside the cemetery for very different reasons, I have always considered taking photos of funeral services to be taboo… even though I’ve been tempted by some of the more elaborate displays.

Another overlooked aspect of Recoleta Cemetery is the role it plays in collective memory. Commemorative services—like that for Admiral Guillermo Brown—occur frequently, but they are usually only witnessed by a few. The interconnection & social ties that commemoration builds would seem to be lost, with participation limited to a very small percentage of the population. Tourists may enjoy witnessing such services, but they are intended for Argentines… who are often absent.

But anyone, tourist or local, can learn from Warner’s observation that the symbols of death explain what life is. Visiting Recoleta Cemetery helps us understand who we are by connecting with the past & giving us a sense of continuity. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a big fan of visiting cemeteries—I love seeing how different cultures deal with life.

Photo of W. Lloyd Warner: Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, taken on 01 May 1949. Post inspired by “The Collective Memory Reader” edited by Olick, Vinitzky, Seroussi & Levy (2011)… a fantastic collection of essays investigating society’s interpretation of the past & present.


404. another star of david ◊

Familia de Uribe y Lecea, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Star of David

At first glance, the Uribe y Lecea family tomb may not stand out much from its neighbors in Recoleta Cemetery. But on closer inspection—just above the false column capitals—two Stars of David hide in the shadows:

Familia de Uribe y Lecea, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Star of David

Marcelo spied the symbols during a visit earlier this year with his daughter… to our mutual surprise. Despite more than 1,000 visits to the cemetery, this discovery proves that there is always something new to be found. Since the removal of the plaque on the Benjamín Breitman family vault, this is the only Jewish image currently in Recoleta Cemetery. Also remarkable is the Christian symbolism outside & inside:

Familia de Uribe y Lecea, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Star of David

Was this tomb purchased & remodeled like so many others? Did family members convert? Or did they not care about the mixed symbolism? While searching for the answers to these questions, the PDF guidebook has been updated to reflect the recent discovery.


389. ascasubi

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

The fabulous life of the gaucho poet Hilario Ascasubi seems to have come directly from the pen of a 19th-century Romantic writer.

The story goes that Ascasubi was born in Córdoba in 1807 aboard a covered wagon. At the age of 5, he rode alongside the then Coronel José de San Martín. And when he turned 14, on a whim Hilario embarked on “La Rosa Argentina” & sailed for over two years around the world.

In 1825, he enlisted as a recruit in General José María Paz’s forces to fight against the Spanish. It was there where Ascasubi began to compose verses to entertain his companions. Shortly after, he met Facundo Quiroga in Tucumán.

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

When Rosas came to power, Ascasubi wrote satires against the “Restorer” which got him two years in prison. After his release, he lived in exile in Montevideo for the next two decades… the time when his literary expertise would make him famous. Ascasubi returned to Buenos Aires in 1852, & the following year edited the satirical newspaper “Aniceto el Gallo.” A few years later he spent almost his entire fortune in building the first Teatro Colón on Plaza de Mayo.

In 1872, his complete works were published in Paris & “Santos Vega” appeared for the first time —about a storyteller who defies the Devil himself & is regarded as one of the best works of Latin American literature. In Recoleta Cemetery, his most recognized works are listed on the left side of the tomb while his military actions are named on the right:

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

Ascasubi —friend of Sarmiento, Florencio Varela, & Valentín Alsina— passed away in Buenos Aires in 1875. His crypt was declared a National Historic Monument in 1946. The tree stump is unique to the cemetery… a symbol of death of something which once lived, something which can never be recovered:

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery


361. poppy

Poppy, Recoleta Cemetery

Who can forget the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy & the Cowardly Lion are in danger of falling asleep forever in the poppy fields?

The poppy has been associated with eternal sleep since Greek times when they were used as offerings for the deceased. Perhaps the effects of opium —intense relaxation & freedom from anxiety— also make the poppy an appropriate symbol for a cemetery. Although not common in Recoleta, the image can occasionally be found in wrought-iron doors & plaques:

Poppy, Recoleta Cemetery

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320. masonic madness

Perhaps it’s only a fad or maybe the need to believe in something more than the obvious. Whatever the reason, Masonic madness seems to have taken over cemetery research in Buenos Aires. Every symbol found on tombs is automatically attributed to the Masonic order. For example, a page added to the city government’s official website explains much of the symbolism already mentioned in this blog as if it all had Masonic origins. Impossible.

Without question, several tombs display obvious Masonic imagery (like the Corona family or Pedro Benoit, among many others), & the Order was extremely popular in Argentina. But that fact alone does not give researchers the right to discard alternative meanings.

The door below—several copies of which can be found in Recoleta Cemetery—contains a lot of symbolism when examined carefully:

Door, Recoleta Cemetery

Three nails refer to the crucifixion & can be found on the mosaic floor of the Cathedral in Buenos Aires: one nail for each hand/wrist & one for both feet. But beneath that obvious Christian symbol, there are many tools… a ladder, pliers, a hammer & even a spear. The most common explanation is that these are Masonic symbols, but actually they have been used to describe the Passion of Christ for several centuries. An English text from the 1300’s shows them all:

14th century text, Lancashire

The spear was used to confirm that Christ had died (some claim that the spear actually killed him), followers used a ladder to bring the body down & pliers were needed to remove the nails. Symbolic explanations are often that simple. A more recent example of the same imagery can be found in the Iglesia de la Piedad in Buenos Aires:

Iglesia de la Piedad, Buenos Aires

In a country like Argentina which was more Catholic than Masonic, it’s always safer to assume a religious explanation for cemetery symbols. No need for Masonic madness.

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