Splendor of the Living Dead: Reality Is Cloaked in Myth in This Legendary Buenos Aires Cemetery, Where Burial Is a Distinction

Article excerpt

A stroll through Recoleta Cemetery in the heart of Buenos Aires is like leafing through the history of Argentina--official and unofficial. Inside its walls rest the heroines, scoundrels, patriots, popular saints, despots, eminent citizens, playboys, famous beauties, tycoons, and ne'er-do-wells of whom history books and gossip are made. There are those who inherited and decimated great fortunes and one who made his and had himself sculpted in workman's clothes and stepping from a rowboat emblazoned with the name "AYUDATE" (help yourself). There is even the tomb of a cemetery caretaker who saved up all his career to have a tomb of his own. He is shown in a bas-relief wearing a felt that and holding a broom and bucket of tools. They lie in their majestic tombs, in a miniature city not so unlike the one outside its walls, in silent, elegant admonition of those who would forget them.

In a country where death and legend intertwine freely with life itself, burial in Recoleta has acquired a special aura. "The dead who go there," wrote Florencio Escardo over half a century ago in Geography of Buenos Aires, "go there not because they have died but because they deserve to lie in Recoleta, where by a curious local phenomenon they are more dead and less dead than the run-of-the-mill dead."

While burial in Recoleta has for many years been a privilege reserved for the few, its beginning was humble enough. Until 1822, the local custom had been to bury the dead inside the churches themselves. But the government had recently outlawed the practice as there was no more room. City officials selected a suitable plot on the outskirts of town, previously belonging to the friars of the Orden de los Recoletos Descalzos--hence the name Recoleta--and inaugurated Argentina's first public cemetery.

On that first day two graves were dug. One was for the free-born infant child of a slave, or parvulo liberto (as all children of slaves had been liberated by a recent law); the other was for a young Uruguayan girl, Maria de los Dolores Maciel. Throughout the rest of the day, fifteen cart loads of remains from the overloaded churches and convents rumbled their way to Recoleta.

No one knows where those early graves lie. Much has changed over the years: The little over twelve acres of orchard and vegetable garden that had belonged to the friars would have easily held the entire population of early Buenos Aires in their eternal rest. Today, it is a crowded metropolis of tombs and monuments with not one free plot to be had: Descendants are reduced to fierce battles over who has the right to be buried in the family tomb or which ancestors are ripe for cremation; while the recently arrived who wish to start modern-day dynasties of their own must buy someone else's tomb--one can always be had from families in eclipse--and throw its former residents out.

Class consciousness is so strong in Recoleta that even today it is commonly remarked as a triumph for her and an affront to them, that Eva Peron, so scorned by Argentina's upper class, was buried among them and that it is to pay their respects (or take a snapshot) that the masses of tourists and believers troop.

How burial in what was once a lowly public cemetery became a symbol of wealth and power, the ultimate Argentine pedigree, is one of those delicious ironies of history.

On a spring morning crafts vendors are setting up their stalls in the grassy plaza that spreads out like a cloak before the cemetery. Across the plaza, starched waiters in sidewalk cafes stand beside portenos reading the newspaper between sips at their cortados.

In the cool sunlight, the cemetery is a benign presence in this refined part of town. A brick wall separates it from the living city. Several blind beggars are as much a part of the portal to the graveyard as are the four ionic columns. An impeccably dressed old man passes them bearing a bouquet of flowers.

It is easy to get lost inside this labyrinth, once a favorite promenade of Jorge Luis Borges. …