Written by Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff (1825-1882)—an English mountaineer, writer, founder & president of the Alpine Club—the following text was published in the book “South American sketches: or, A visit to Rio Janeiro, the Organ Mountains, La Plata, and the Paranà” [sic] in 1863. The text is in public domain, & the section which refers to Recoleta Cemetery is reproduced below.
But one of the most curious and interesting places to be seen in Buenos Ayres is the Recoleta, or burying-place of the Catholics, whether natives or foreigners. It is a very large piece of ground in the northern outskirts, and is completely surrounded by a high wall pierced with loopholes, which would enable a small body of soldiers within to hold the road against an enemy. It is entered by very handsome iron gates, close to which is a chapel for the performance of the burial service. The poorer people are buried in the remoter parts of the ground, in the simple ordinary graves of Europe; but the central part is divided by numbers of paths into narrow streets of vaults and family mausoleums. The latter are for the most part built of white marble, and look like small temples, generally covered with a dome; an iron-grated door permits a view of all the coffins of the family, arranged on shelves or ledges round three sides of the interior, and decorated with immortelles and artificial flowers. Many of the principal inhabitants have spent very large sums of money upon these structures, and the general effect is remarkably good. Seen from the surrounding neighbourhood, the large collection of white cupolas and turrets, rising high above the wall, would make a visitor believe that he saw an Eastern city in the distance.
I often wandered about this Recoleta, studying the epitaphs in many languages; and one day, close to where an English Catholic had buried his wife, and graced her tombstone with the familiar ‘Affliction sore long time she bore, &c.,’ I found on a tall obelisk the most concise and terrible inscription I am acquainted with. It was this:
DON FRANCISCO ALVAREZ,
ASESINADO POR SUS AMIGOS,
‘Assassinated by his friends!’ Struck by this extraordinary epitaph I made enquiries about the subject of it, and found that a party of young men from good families of the place were in the habit of gambling together, till Alvarez won heavily from all the others. They determined to pay their debts by getting rid of their creditor, and enticing him to a lonely place the deliberately murdered him; they put his dead body in a coach that was ready, and threw it down a well in the neighbourhood. They had laid their plans so that detection seemed impossible; but by an extraordinary chance there was a witness to the crime, who denounced them. Great efforts were made by family influence to save them, but in vain; they were executed, and the brother of the murdered man erected the obelisk to his memory. In another part of the Recoleta was a dreadful hole, into which the victims of the tyranny of Rosas used to be precipitated wholesale; but those times are happily over, and no trace of them remains except in the memory of the Buenos Ayreans.
This text is valuable in so many ways. It gives us a first-hand account of burial practices & tomb placement of the time. Hinchliff also discusses the general appearance of Recoleta Cemetery as well as tombs which no longer exist. Finally, he makes the cemetery a tourist destination & finds an interesting story to tell. Apparently some things never change!
Entrance gate & the Iglesia de Pilar, circa 1867, shortly after Hinchliff’s visit. Photo by Benito Panunzi from the Carlos Sánchez Idiart Collection.
Does that obelisk still exist?
Unfortunately no… and neither do the rhyming tombstones he mentioned. Wish there was one left behind.
Hello, Robert! I’m from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a frequent visitor of your website.
I have a doubt: what the Argentinian families do with those painstakingly polished coffins (and their embalmed occupants) when the mausoleum is full and more burial space is needed?
Here in Brazil, the sanitary regulations doesn’t allow exposed coffins as we see in Recoleta Cemetery, even if they are sealed. The coffins must be buried in the ground or behind cemented walls in the mausoleums. After five years, the remains are usually exhumed and the bones are placed in small boxes.
Olá Eurico Jr. –
Fala inglês muito bem. Obrigado pelo comentário… então, para contestar é complicado…
Even though it sounds morbid, people usually decay faster than family members die. Each mausoleum is private property. If the family needs more space, older remains are transferred to smaller boxes. Important family members are always left in sight (above ground), but everyone else is sent below.
There is a regulation that all coffins must be lined with metal so the natural process of decompostion is not seen by anyone visiting the cemetery. In a future post, I will explain a bit more. But all the mausoleums in Recoleta are privately owned, so different rules apply.
Talvez foi ao cemitério de Chacarita… é o mais grande da cidade onde todos têm dereito a descansar em paz. Cualquer dúvida, é só perguntar!
Robert, agradeço-lhe muito pela rápida resposta! Retribuindo a cortesia, escrevo em português.
Visitei Buenos Aires em 2009, e estive somente no Cemetério da Recoleta. Em próxima viagem, planejo visitar Chacarita. Lá também há caixões espostos?
Notei que entre os turistas há muito espanto e curiosidade com os caixões expostos, polidos e cuidados como se fossem objetos de decoração. Não me recordo que haja isso em qualquer outro país do mundo.
Muitos tiravam fotos, encostando as câmeras nos vidros da portas dos mausoléus. Talvez por isso houve aquele pedido recente de que não se fotografassem os caixões.
Mais uma vez, obrigado! E se você tiver qualquer dúvida sobre como são essas coisas no Brasil, só perguntar!
It’s great to practice Portuguese! Thanks!
Chacarita is enormous & it has a little of everything: mausoleums with caskets in sight, several rows of niches, & lots of tombstones. Definitely worth a visit.
Perhaps the new regulation regarding photography is also due to the fact that each mausoleum is private property. Tourists probably don’t realize that what they’re doing is like going up to someone’s house & taking a picture through the window 🙂 Abraço!
A pathologist friend of mine also visited the cemetery and became very intrigued with the coffins. He explained to me that corpses “buried” in this peculiar way are certainly embalmed, because the resultant gases of the decomposition process can easily burst the coffin, despite the metal lining (usually made of zinc or lead). As embalmed bodies can remain intact for decades, I believe that they are cremated when the family needs more space.
Anyway, that’s indeed a interesting (though morbid, as you said) subject for a future topic. I think that a call to a “cochería” can clarify the matter.