Cemeteries. Every city has one. They are mysterious, historic, haunting and, to me, fascinating. I developed a fondness for cemeteries as a boy.
Now whenever I’m out of town, I always make it a point to visit a cemetery. To me, they are better than any mountain range, skyline or other popular tourist attraction. They are hidden treasures containing a wealth of information about communities and the people who lived there.
Chances are you have visited a cemetery at some time in your life to pay your respects to a family member or friend, and perhaps you too appreciate the stories represented among the tombstones and monuments.
My travels take me to all over the South and Midwest, sometimes further North, and sometimes around the world! So I have decided to start documenting my cemetery visits with a series of photos in a Sunday feature.
This week’s cemetery is Cementerio General in Santiago, Chile. Santiago is the capital and largest city in Chile and is named after the biblical figure St. James.
Founded 193 years ago in December 1821, this grand and historic cemetery is beyond amazing. It’s impressive, it’s moving, and it will leave you with a sense of gratification you took the time to visit.
With more than 2 million buried here, the number of visitors both inside and outside the cemetery gates was astonishing. It gave me a new appreciation for the people of South America when it comes to paying respects to the dead.
Outside the cemetery walls, the scene was carnival-like. There were countless vendors selling flowers to visitors arriving on buses, by subway and taxi and by personal vehicles. The cemetery even offered valet parking! Inside the gates in select areas were vendors selling everything from drinks and snacks to adornments for graves. Never in my life have I seen such a spectacle at a resting place for the dead, so it made my visit all the more entertaining.
It was interesting how blatant the class distinction was behind the cemetery walls. The south section is made up of mausoleums built in varying architectural styles (French, Italian — there’s even a Mayan Temple!) for the rich while in the northern section you have graves for the ordinary people.
The sheer number of graves crammed into such a limited space reminded me of crowded street corners I have experienced in places like New York City and Tokyo. The mausoleums were stacked high and those who were buried in the ground were packed in tight.
Although not as appealing to the eyes, I will say the visiting family members made my visit to the northern section worthwhile. I witnessed entire families gathered around grave sites to pay honor and respect to loved ones. And we’re not talking a quick 5- or 1o-minute visit. These visits were an all-day affair.
When family members weren’t observing a moment of silence, they were doing a bit of housekeeping, which included such things as washing markers, replacing flowers and photos, and landscaping.
Also located in the northern section was an area filled with dark metal crosses called Patio 29, which is now a national monument.
It’s made up of graves where political prisoners, especially those who mysteriously disappeared during the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat, were buried anonymously. One of those is Chilean singer-songwriter and political activist Victor Jara, whose hands were broken so he could no longer play guitar and who was eventually killed.
At the entrance to the 210-acre cemetery, there’s another memorial built in 1994 to honor those who disappeared or were politically executed under the Pinochet dictatorship. The wall is divided into two sections: one containing the names (about 1,000) of those who disappeared” and the other half containing the names (more than 3,000) of people known to have been executed. Below the marble wall is a stone garden where relatives place mementos and photos of the victims.
The cemetery is home to hundreds of some of the most influential people in Chile. All but two of the deceased presidents of Chile are buried here.
The two most visited memorials in the cemetery are that of former President Salvador Allende and the memorial (mentioned above) to those who “disappeared” during the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
When you cross over into the south section, it feels like you’ve entered a different world. Unlike the lively and highly traveled northern section, it’s very quiet and peaceful with very few locals around. Most of the visitors you see are tourists. However, on the day of my visit I did see a funeral taking place, complete with traditional guitar music. While the mausoleums vary in size in style, some of the family plots had nothing more than a staircase, covered by a metal grate, leading to underground vaults which were kind of spooky!
Cementerio General is a historic goldmine. I hope to do more research to learn more about some of the families who are buried here and how they attained their wealth.
Until next time….