Cities of the Dead

When we arrived in Coyhaique, the largest city in lower Chile (pop. 44,000 lol), I noticed an impressive cemetery. Poking above the whitewashed adobe wall surrounding it, and briefly through the smooth arched entrance I glimpsed some of the monuments to the departed: statues, crosses, angels, and decorative peaks of a mini-city of mausoleums. Ooooh, I want to go in there! I exclaimed to Jeff, which motivated a quizzical response to my curiosity and excitement. Surprised I had to spell it out, I explained my appreciation of both the art and culture surrounding how people treat their dead. It was clear, however, that I’d be lacking a wingman in this particular exploit.

A visit to the Coyhaique cemetery didn’t materialize in the end due to our brief agenda there, but Argentina has more than made-up for it, especially in Buenos Aires.

Cemetario Recoleta is famous for being the final resting place of many of Argentina’s most elite families, and its importance is demonstrated with luxurious and grandiose tombs of marble and stained-glass, some towering 30-feet and adorned with beautiful statuary. The scale of the place is also impressive; I ventured down maybe an eighth of its tightly-packed corridors in two hours, granted I took my time to marvel at the astounding variety of construction and detail on display. Many had glass doors through which you could peer into dioramas of altars, flowers, pictures, sculpted busts, stairs leading down, and of course coffins. Some of the older and neglected tombs were broken into, with rubble and fixtures missing.

I was so engrossed that, after a while, I didn’t notice I was alone in there. Yeah, Recoleta Cemetary closed with me in it. I found my way to the tiny arched door I came in through, (the main entrance under construction,) and it was pad-locked, from the inside. I turned to an old man standing in a nearby intersection and asked him how to get out. He scowled at me in Castellano: “you need a security guard to let you out!” Unsure if he was just messing with me, I asked “are you a security guard?” He just glared at me. So I wandered off to take some more pictures. I passed the same two cats I saw on the way-in, still doing-it, and eventually I saw a guard approaching me waving, who let me and the old man out.

Our local friend and host Diego told me, more specifically regarding the city’s other, middle-class cemetery Chacarita, a bit farther out of the town center, that it was big money and a common occurrence for thieves to break-in and steal the remains of dead people, call the family, and demand money for their safe return. Eeek! So that would explain why all the cemeteries have walls and are promptly padlocked at 6pm.

Late that night, as we were biking back to Diego’s place from the city, he took us past Cemetario Chacarita. In contrast to Recoleta’s 4m high walls (which you could actually see from end to end), this place was a fortress. With walls at least 10m high and spanning many city blocks, you couldn’t see what lie beyond the looming adobe walls which faded down the avenue, into infinity. “We’re coming back here tomorrow!” I decreed.

When we came back the next day, the pinkish entrance was open and invitingly-so. In we wandered, and it was Massive. Wow, 95 hectares (235 acres), miles of tombs and underground catacombs, in various states of repair and disrepair.

Once inside, I discovered that the tall walls surrounding the place were actually catacombs, rising two stories above ground and sinking one below. I walked into a door and peered down a long, seemingly endless hall, textured with a grid of square doors, six high. Even though it wasn’t flashy I could tell this was nonetheless valuable real-estate, as depressing as that is.

I was drawn next into the blocks of mausoleums, which, like Recoleta, felt like a city of small houses, some very impressive. We quickly wandered through (and past many a stretch-coffin-transporter and grieving family) to the fields of more traditional “middle-class” graves, the little body-sized plots of grass with modest headstones or crosses, many adorned with brightly-colored artificial flowers. One ‘block’ was mostly dug-up, with piles of dirt everywhere and rectangular plots dug out. I noticed piles of wooden crosses, most of them bearing dates within the last 3-10 years. Apparently these graves were being re-“leased”, the tell-tale signs being bones and oxidized metal pieces from coffins poking through the dirt.

Nearby was a big grassy field. Four widely-spaced concrete entrances were constructed, with elevators and stair cases, descending three tall stories into the earth. Big rectangular atriums let you see down into the layers from above, letting some light into the otherwise gloomy subterranean catacombs. Like a development of low-income apartment buildings, the again depressing miles of tombs seemed endless, each with a number like 16,978 etched into the corner, many with little bouquets of fake-flowers livening up the boxy pattern of doors, in some ‘neighborhoods’ 13tall, in others 7 tall. The small ones couldn’t hold much more than an urn, I suppose. The creepy crypt-keeper scolded me for snapping a photo. Deeper in we wandered, and while there was plenty of space and isolation in the depths of these tunnels, I didn’t want to take many more photos.

It smelled of dead bodies. I never knew this scent before, but the ill, revolted feeling in my stomach made me sure of it. Some corners I had to run through before I could take another gasp of air. We found some ornate metal crucifixes lying around and took funny pictures. This place was unbelievable.

Now I check out cemeteries everywhere. One town, we passed through specifically for it’s “surprising and different” cemetery. It was gorgeous.

On top of the hill, facing the highway, in rocks painted white it advertised “Visit Maimara”.

Even if it's in the middle of the desert, it's got a wall.

2 thoughts on “Cities of the Dead”

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