Recoleta Cemetery: Buenos Aires, Argentina
On top of a hill in one of Buenos Aires’ most upmarket neighbourhoods lies the city’s most curious yet captivating attraction: the Cementerio de la Recoleta. It is a veritable city of the dead, populated by the tombs of Argentina’s deceased elite. The list of people buried here includes national leaders, military personnel, Nobel Prize winners and wealthy citizens. Even Eva Peron, First Lady and champion of the poor and destitute, was eventually laid to rest here in a casket five meters below the surface.
At first glance it was clear to me that Recoleta Cemetery is, and always has been, a bastion of wealth. Four towering white pillars hold up the entry gate; a forerunner of the grandeur that lies inside. Many of the 6400 mausoleums built here are grand and ornate, and some are even works of art. What they lack in size is more than made up for by the craftsmanship that went into creating them. It seemed to me that these tombs stood primarily to draw attention and show off the status of their occupants. I got the impression of huge self-importance and competing egos. It appears that if one lived large in life, then one remains lavish after death. Needless to say, this place is definitely over the top.
The architecture and ornamentation seen within the cemetery is of many different styles, often in complete contrast to its surroundings. Greek temples, Baroque chapels and charming Art Deco palaces sit side by side, with the occasional humbler brick structure in between. The urban setting has confined them to being miniature versions of the buildings that inspired them. More than a few have fallen into disrepair, and it was these that struck me most. The task of restoration and upkeep falls to the descendants of the buried; perhaps some of these had no one left to look after them. They were derelict, crumbling and neglected. I wondered which once lauded member of Buenos Aires society lay beneath them. Had their names been forgotten? As souls pass on to eternity is everyone equal or are we all on different levels, as this cemetery seems to suggest? Does wealth still matter after death? Recoleta cemetery seems to tell a different story to what the scriptures preach.
I was far more interested in the rustic, rugged beauty of these decaying tombs than the grand opulence of the rest. They inspired me to create a series of black and white film photographs that reflect the sombre, tranquil atmosphere that this place carries. This particular medium also emphasizes the details, the difference between what remains and what has been lost to neglect.
You could spend hours wandering through the eerie roads of this cemetery. Wide tree-lined avenues give way to narrow shadowed walkways. The layout is similar to planned out city blocks, complete with a central plaza. The place has become a peaceful retreat for many local stray cats, although you are sure to pass more than a few tourists as well. Symbolism runs rife, with religious statues watching over almost every tomb. Masonic symbols can also be seen adorning walls and mantelpieces.
Bouquets of wilting flowers have been left behind by families and admirers seeking to pay their respects. Wrought iron doors and window shutters, weeping angel statues and Lots of the mausoleums have glass faced windows, allowing passers-by to take a look inside to where the wooden coffins lie.
Countless stories and legends are tied to the cemetery. Established as the city’s first public burial ground in 1822, it was at first unpopular, but eventually overtaken by the upper tiers of society. Eva Peron is undoubtedly the name that draws the most visitors to her tomb – although its appearance is quite underwhelming – for her political actions and her commemoration in pop culture. However, there are plenty more interesting characters that were laid to rest in Recoleta. Some of them are even remembered with life like statues that represent their achievements and interests. Each mausoleum bears its family name, and they carry on the tradition of listing dates of passing but not dates of birth.
If you happen to be in Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery is definitely worth dedicating an afternoon to, to stroll its walkways in quiet reflection. Spend some time admiring the remarkable architecture and sculpture and you will probably find yourself in a contemplative mood. The cemetery is open from 8 am to 6 pm every day, and there is no entrance fee. If you are interested in learning more of the history, there are English speaking tours at 11 am every Tuesday and Thursday.
Recoleta Cemetery is easy to find. Head to Las Heras Avenue, and keep walking down it until you reach Junin. Then continue for two more blocks until you reach Vicente Lopez street. At this point you should be able to see the huge wall that surrounds the cemetery.
Map Showing the Location of Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires ::