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Argentina and the Dead

A visit to Recoleta Cemetery

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Eva Peron grave Buenos Aires Recoleta Ce

Eva Peron grave Buenos Aires Recoleta Cemetery

Les Inglis
Guest article by Les Inglis

Some say that the Argentinos are obsessed with death. Certainly this idea gets some reinforcement from visiting a cemetery in Buenos Aires. My hotel was directly in front of the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. I could see the neo-classical gates to the cemetery with their tall Greek columns from the door of the hotel.

The cemetery had been discussed in my travel guide for Buenos Aires so I set off on foot to explore it. Here the rich and famous of Buenos Aires are resting in a two square block plot of land filled border to border with private mausoleums. At home here in America we expect to see grass in a cemetery but this place was paved from wall to wall divided into what looked like little city blocks by sidewalks. Each mausoleum was built touching the one to either side just like downtown buildings. The main walks were wide and overhung with trees in places but on the whole this was not a place for greenery.

Each mausoleum bore the family name chiseled into the façade and numerous placards of brass and bronze attached to the front. That obsession I mentioned earlier is suggested in the dates on the placards. Always the date of death is shown but only occasionally can you find the date of birth. The plaques are applied by family and friends usually on some anniversary of the date of death, like this one on the Duarte Family mausoleum.

It's fair to say the whole nation loves Evita Juan Perón's wife. A number of memorials throughout the city attest to this. After the musical Evita the whole world felt as if it knew her. She was an actress before she was first lady and she used her great influence while her husband was in power to help the children the aged and the sick. After her early death and a number of detour stops her body came to rest finally in the Recoleta Cemetery in her family's black marble mausoleum.

The family name is Duarte and owing to the Latin custom of not changing the name of a woman when she marries she is only known as Eva Perón in the rest of the world. You don't have to search long to find Eva Duarte's resting place (photo above and larger image) on one of the side streets of the Recoleta because there is usually a group of tourists and locals there to leave a few flowers and pay homage. Curiously Juan Perón is buried in a different cemetery in Buenos Aires.

These marble and stone buildings aren't cheap and the Argentines don't squander them on one person. A whole family will be resting here in one small building sometimes a even few generations. Some are small and some very large but almost all have a basement. You can look in glass windows on the front door of each little building and you usually see a steep stairway leading down to a basement where other coffins are stored. Usually on the main floor often are at least two coffins an altar a cross often vases for flowers and sometimes stained glass windows and fresh flowers.

More recent interments show a bright polish on the wood caskets which usually have ornate metal hardware. A few believers in cremation have tiny little wooden boxes shaped like the larger full-scale models. The oldest coffins are dull showing signs of their age even though they have rested undisturbed for decades or even centuries inside these substantial buildings.

I have the sense that one pays a service to maintain the crypts. I see people working on cleaning and fixing broken tiles and glass. Also I imagine a service is available to place fresh flowers. Of course some of the fallen no longer have families to care for their crypts and decay can be found here and there. I even saw some evidence of vandalism-broken glass stolen crosses etc. Still I had the feeling that such a cemetery in any big city in the United States would be much more vandalized.

The cemetery has a large population of feral cats who look surprisingly healthy. At night they gather near the closed iron gates and animal lovers bring bowls of food and water for them. In the evening I counted at least twenty in view from the two gates in the front wall. In the day you see far fewer but they are in there somewhere just waiting for nightfall and another good meal.

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