Recoleta Cemetery is like a microcosm of Buenos Aires itself: a city within a city, a fascinating blend of fine preservation and shocking deterioration.
During my time in Buenos Aires, I fanned out from my two hotels, Casa Calma Wellness Hotel and Rooney’s Boutique Hotel, to explore many of the city’s neighborhoods. Compared to these other barrios, affluent Recoleta has less graffiti, less noise, more high-rise apartment buildings with doormen and sumptuous lobbies of marble and polished wood, high-end stores, stylishly dressed residents, and busy dog-walkers. I was here to explore Recoleta Cemetery, the city’s oldest public cemetery. A tall, crenellated brick wall surrounding the cemetery like a fortress is relieved by a pure white entrance of neo-classical gates with tall Doric columns and acroterions. Immediately upon entering, I found it to be a mirror of the city itself. The burial ground so bewitched me that I ended up popping in here twice more during my stay in the Argentinian capital, repeatedly lured back by its history, its mystery, and its beauty.
Laid out in a grid plan with neat rows next to the Church of Our Lady of Pilar by a French civil engineer, the 14-acre cemetery, founded in 1822 and redesigned in 1881, looks like a miniature city. A main boulevard with a central park-like area with trees and benches is bisected by perpendicular and diagonal “streets,” which are further cut by more cross-streets. The buildings flanking them are all above-ground, densely packed mausoleums—6,400 of them. They range from chapels to Greek temples to small mansions, even a pyramid. Marble and limestone are the popular materials of choice, and I found a wide variety of styles, including neo-Gothic, Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. Most are similarly sized, but they range from simple to fantastically over the top, with extravagant and sometimes very mournful sculptures, marble altars, rose windows, columns, and arches. I particularly admired the domes of different styles, from saucer to beehive, and materials—stained glass, mosaic tiles, fish scale tiles, and stone. Topped by busts of the deceased, angels, antefixes, and crosses, and many with intricate wrought-iron doors, they stand shoulder to shoulder, occasionally with a plant-filled urn beside them. Many have a relief of a sand hourglass with wings (a reminder that time flies) or of a skull and crossbones. Each one is different, and a stroll around this graveyard could easily occupy your entire day.
As I meandered through this labyrinthine space, where there are no open views and I never knew what awaited me at an intersection of the passageways or just around the corner, I found that the varying conditions of the cheek-by-jowl mausoleums perfectly reflect the conditions of Buenos Aires’ buildings and neighborhoods. Some are finely maintained; others have fallen into a state of disrepair, with crumbling structures, rusting fixtures, and broken glass. In some of the better-preserved ones, marble and brass doors are polished, invasive flora have been plucked, and clear glass doors allowed me to peek inside, at caskets resting on shelves, or on top of each other. The mausoleums that have aged badly are not as fortunate: Cracked and decaying panels expose coffins that were never meant to be viewable, and layers of dust veil the objects within the mausoleums, from chairs to candelabra, gaining entry from broken doors, ragged fissures in the walls, and holes in the roofs.
Life abounds here, beyond the tourists who have come to wander the alleys of smooth and grooved pavers. Birds chirp their songs. Stray cats have made it their home. Ferns thrive in between the crevices in the tombs thanks to the humid climate. Occasional palm and cypress trees offer some welcome shade.
But it’s truly a city of the dead. Since its inception, many of Argentina’s wealthiest and most famous people have chosen Recoleta Cemetery as their final resting place. You’ll find mausoleums for 18 Argentinian presidents, a granddaughter of Napoleon, José de San Martín’s wife, and the founder of the country’s navy. Influential scientists, poets, writers, actors, business leaders, physicians, and generals rest in peace here, as do the first Latin American Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the lyricist for the Argentinian national anthem, and boxer Luis Ángel Firpo, who lost his world heavyweight title challenge to champ Jack Dempsey in 1923. Dictator Facundo Quiroga, killed by a bullet through his left eye in 1835, was buried standing up in his sepulcher, at his request—either to remind the nation of his valor, or to meet God’s judgment in an upright position rather than lying down, depending on which urban legend you believe (but both smacking of some serious pride).
Plenty of forgotten, non-household names are buried here as well, and their stories are just as fascinating. Take, for example, 26-year-old Liliana Crociati de Szaszak. Killed in an avalanche during her honeymoon in the Alps, she was laid to rest by her parents in a wood and glass mausoleum modeled on her childhood room. A statue of her stands outside the tomb, accompanied by a statue of her dog, Sabú, who died the same moment as Liliana despite being an ocean away.
Then there’s 19-year-old Rufina Cambacérès. Her entombment after suffering a cataleptic attack and being presumed dead turned out to be a bit premature. She awoke inside her casket. Trying to claw her way out and screaming as loudly as possible, she eventually caught the attention of grave-workers, but by the time they dug her up, she had suffered a fatal heart attack and was really gone this time. A statue of her stands before her Art Nouveau tomb. Her death(s) prompted department store owner Alfredo Gath, afflicted with taphophobia, to commission a special mechanical coffin with an opening device and alarm bell. He successfully tested the coffin himself a dozen times, but unlucky 13 proved his downfall: The mechanism failed, and he died inside; triskaidekaphobia was validated.
Of course, the big draw is Eva Perón. When she died from cancer at age 33 in 1952, her body lied in state for a while. Perfectly embalmed, it remained on view while a monument to her was being constructed. But in 1955, her husband, Juan, was overthrown in a military coup, and he fled the country. Evita’s body subsequently “disappeared,” and it wasn’t found until 1971, in Italy under an assumed name. Returned to Buenos Aires shortly after, Evita’s body is unlikely to vanish again: It lies in the simple Duarte family crypt, 27’ down in a compartment under a trapdoor under two other coffins under another trapdoor under a marble floor.
Recoleta Cemetery turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of my visit to Buenos Aires, and I’m not the only one who thinks spending a day or two here should be mandatory: Both the BBC and CNN have cited it as one of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries.
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