Lost in the Sand: Cemeteries throughout Northern Chile Resonate as Silent Monuments to the Past

Article excerpt

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In northern Chile, in places far from everyone and everything, abandoned cemeteries--with their simple wooden crosses and their tin and paper flowers--give witness to a life that once was. Some are located in the middle of the desert and are the final resting place of inhabitants of the pampas from the glory days of the salt mines. Others are even older and hold the remains of Bolivians who were once owners of a large part of the Chilean Pacific coast. Still others are located in the Andean highlands, where family members of the deceased still visit their ancestors and perform spiritual rituals for their life beyond death.

Countless cemeteries are scattered across the "Great North" of Chile, remnants of an active, almost bustling, past. Often, they are the only remaining evidence of tiny settlements and towels, now long gone. Outlined by iron fences bent by time and relentless winds, one such graveyard holds the remains of immigrants and pampa dwellers (pampinos, as the men of the desert are still called today). There are no flowers or any other indication that anyone might have visited in recent years, and none of the graves shows signs of having been maintained. Many of the sites are cunas--children's graves--chilling evidence of the great plague that spread throughout the pampas in the early twentieth century. Many of the children never reached their tenth birthday, and often they are buried next to even younger brothers and sisters.

The pampa experience is intense here in this lifeless territory. The prosperity and dreams of the past can be felt but they will never be recreated. When I read the inscriptions, I can't help but think about where the descendents might be and how many generations might have come and gone without anyone coming here to leave a flower amid the silence.

At another cemetery in the little town of Caspana in the Andean highlands, family members of the deceased carry colorful wreaths made of cardboard flowers, crepe paper, and plastic to the graves. Timar, Camar, and Socaire are all small villages that have flourished thanks to the presence of small streams. Even today, there is enough water for fruit orchards and livestock. These villages also have their cemeteries, of course. They are small, beautiful, and well cared for; full of paper flowers and streamers that flap in the wind. …