Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cementerio de la Recoleta

by Julie R Butler

Cementerio de la Recoleta is truly amazing, a necropolis of permanent resting places for thousands, a hushed, other-worldly memorial ground through which those of us who still can may slowly wander, ponder, and reflect on the impact that a person has had on the world, both while living and after they are no longer. It takes hours to comprehend the scope of the place. The size, grandeur, and pure mass of the sarcophagi, statues, and mausoleum walls dwarf us mere passers through.

Each structure begs to be carefully observed – the masterful artistry of every detail, every sculpture, every architectural enhancement, every meaningful symbol, each a moving tribute to an individual’s personality or deeds, all beautiful expressions of love and respect, edifices of continuity that keep their subjects alive in living memory.

Many of the sarcophagi have windows through which the coffins, religious icons, flowers, and heartwarming decorative touches can be seen. Some are well cared for, while others have begun to crumble or become invaded by plants. Their shapes and styles vary in more ways than seems possible. In color, texture, and mood, although all in stone and mostly marble, each varies from all the others through endless arrays of design elements, from the traditional to art deco to uniquely innovative. Many have angels, either kind-faced or fierce, looking down from on high. Some structures are for individuals, while others are for entire families. Plaques have been added by family members in later years to prove their love and respect to the world.

The cemetery is huge, maze-like, and jam-packed, a small city of crowded apartments and memorials for the dead, with no green space, just row after row of impressive buildings and sculptures. Important people’s monuments, for all of eternity, stand shoulder to shoulder with those of nobodies, fancy flourishes are interspersed with graceful simplicity, religious themes coexist with cults of personality, and self-aggrandizements juxtapose devotions to humility. And like any city, it is a collection of discriminate individuals, a unified diversity, a whole of many parts.

A funeral takes place, with dark-clad mourners gathering together in the narrow walkway to witness the casket being laid to rest inside the family sarcophagus. Elsewhere, small groups of people wander quietly about, couples, friends, taking photos and studying the guide. It says that there are 4,800 vaults. Each one is so distinctive, it is nearly impossible not stop and look at each and every fascinating one of them. A guided tour groups around to hear historical information about the more important monuments. Here and there, artists carefully study statues in order to best capture the expressions of their faces on their pads of paper. Everywhere, a sense of awe hangs heavy as the late afternoon sun lowers itself down from its zenith, casting shadows in some corners while lighting up stained glass windows and warming the stone on the far side of the cemetery where cats gather to collect those last solar rays before chilly darkness sets in and they are once again the only creatures left to wander the silent avenues wherein rest the remains and remembrances of lives once lived.

All photos by Jamie Douglas:

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

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