Add a Cemetery to Your Travel Plans? Here’s the one you shouldn’t miss!
A cemetery may not be one of the first things you think of when it comes to visiting new cities, but I encourage you to reconsider. If you visit Buenos Aires, Argentina, don’t miss Recoleta Cemetery. It is one of the most famous and elaborate cemeteries in the world. Here is a walled city filled with grand architecture, riveting stories, and intricate symbols. Since 1888 an Argentinian living in a grand house in Buenos Aires knew the only place to reside in death would be in the Cementerio de la Recoleta. Recoleta is 13.5 acres crammed with mausoleums, and the residents are in their final resting place. Overlooking the view from the rooftop of our hotel, the cemetery structures fascinate both at sunrise and sundown.
A family makes a financial and generational commitment to support such a resting place. Recoleta attracted just the type of families able to make such a commitment. While trees and shrubs are a rare sight and flowers are found mainly in a vase or simple pot, the elements of nature are an integral part of Recoleta. The collection of sculpture and stone carvings in bronze, marble, or granite as well as an enormous collection of stain glass makes this an outdoor art museum with all the elements of a garden. The complex messages of honor and remembrance are written not just with words but with symbols tied to the language and sentiments of flowers and religious beliefs.
The most internationally famous gravesite is Eva Peron, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and his musical Evita. So many international visitors come looking for just this site a long line forms to see what is an architecturally unremarkable gravesite. But wander further with open eyes and a curious mind, and you are in for a remarkable experience.
There are Mausoleums built in a variety of styles: baroque, classical, Egyptian, art nouveau and one of a kind. Some imitate a cathedral, a mansion or a cave, but here there is only a front door; no one walks out the back. You see elegant exteriors, a defying style of roof, and at least one window. Most are large enough to contain multiple family members both above and below ground.
The mausoleum doors completely fascinated me. There are so many different styles. Bold bronze patterns, geometric steel, or massive stone provide security while making a statement that someone grand lies here.
Each door is unique. If you looked only at the doors, you see a collection of wonders. My favorite is the art nouveau with swirls and long thin lines in the design.
Beside many doors stand a life-size likeness of the deceased that resides inside: a young woman and her dog, a miner, a businessman, a beloved young daughter.
There are magnificent windows, needed to provide light on the interior space for family visitors to rest and reflect. The windows do much more than keep out the weather and the debris. Inside the sun streams through colors of glass in patterns of flowers, geometric shapes, and religious symbols. Our guide, Elisabet said Recoleta has the most extensive collection of stain glass in one area than anywhere else in the world.
The exteriors of the mausoleums are decorative. If you see a bronze laurel wreath, it represents the loss of a hero or heroine. There may be a palm branch celebrating certain resurrection into heavenly life or a lily, a symbol of the magnificent beauty of the lost life.*
Why would bronze Ivy be crawling up a wall? Those of you who grow Ivy might quickly recognize the undying characteristic of such a living plant, and here it is said to represent eternal love and fidelity. A dove signifies a soul taking flight, and stars represent heaven.
Decorative elements carved in marble, granite, or cast into bronze represent beliefs and hopes of those related most closely to the deceased.
Lives of devotion, exploration, and sacrifice are stories all worth telling. One which amused me is a story of marital strife played out in stone. Under an elaborate arch, a man sits in a grand chair, the bust of a woman is at his back.
Their story is the husband reached a breaking point with paying his wife’s shopping bills. He gave public notice in the newspaper declaring he would no longer pay her debts. From then on, the husband and wife continued living under the same roof but never spoke to each other again. The husband died. The wife, now in charge of the estate, built a lavish memorial.
She ordered a life-like sculpture of her husband seated in a grand chair to sit atop the mausoleum and as a result, displayed her generous spirit and wise use of money. Upon her death, she had ordered her life-like rendering placed to show how they had lived— back to back.
Recoleta is an active cemetery where families today continue to bury their dead. Cemetery custodians hired by the families polish the doors, clean the windows and tend the plants.
Some new contemporary architecture is emerging, including this quite grand new monument to Dr. Alfonsin, President of Argentina, 1983-1989.
Some families have failed to thrive. Reaching the end of their lineage, their patch of ground and structure falls into ruin. The site deteriorates because of complex property and tax laws.
We visited Recoleta twice, once in a large group tour with a quick orientation followed by a guided walk-through. We came again with Elisabet on a private tour where the beauty and mystery were truly explored and enjoyed. A cemetery shows us the seasons of life, the stages of grief, and a connection to nature. All come together in the fascinating grounds of Recoleta.
On your next trip, consider how an off the touristy path establishment like a cemetery can be a hidden gem of exploration and enjoyment.
Mausoleum—an independent structure, generally just above ground but can also have below-ground space, built to hold remains of a person or persons. Many are privately owned by the family named. There is generally a doorway, a window and interior space. A cemetery may have a public mausoleum where a much larger structure provides space for multiple families to reside.
“Mausoleums came about when Queen Artemisia II of Caria, in Asia Minor, had a special structure built to house the remains of her husband and brother, King Mausolus, when he died in 353 B.C. This is where the word derived. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, near Bodrun, Turkey, is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” If you want to know more check out A grave interest blog
A crypt is a burial spot, built to hold a casket in a chamber. It is often beneath the floor of a church or in a wall space (think St Peter’s in Rome.)
A tomb is an above-ground structure without windows or doors.
If you want more information here is an article from the New York Times, Cemetery for the Elite
Cemetery symbolism is a language all its own, here are some sources to satisfy your curiosity.
It is rather like trying to figure out personalized license plates, it could be anything, but it sends a message to someone, just not clearly to me. The Cemetery Club
For a great personalized tour contact Elisabet at Iconic Buenos Aires Tours.