I like to think that the older I get, the less I care about what other people think. (In my case I was, admittedly, starting from a low base). So I’ve always assumed that by the time I’m, er, dead, that this attitude would have reached an all-time low. And I implicitly assumed that other folk would feel the same way.
Oh, how wrong I was. One visit to La Recoleta Cemetery- Buenos Aires’ shrine to the great, good and dead of their city – and I realised that, for many people, death is merely the beginning of their fashionable existence.
The area around La Recoleta began life in the early 18th Century, when an order of Monks set up a church in the area. When they disbanded in the 19th Century, their gardens were taken over for a public cemetery.
Since then, La Recoleta has grown to include nearly 4700 vaults. Styles have changed over the years, and this is reflected in the different construction methods. One thing is constant though – anybody who is buried in La Recoleta wants to be remembered. More than that: they want to be seen to be remembered.
At the entrance to the cemetery, there is a map listing all the vaults. Or you can just get pleasantly lost, wandering your way through the rows and alleyways, marvelling at the scale of it all.
The styles vary considerably – unsurprising given that the cemetery has been “active” for nearly 2 centuries. Whatever your favoured architectural style, you’re probably going to find it here. (Although you may struggle to find out who the architects are – I’m not sure that “cemetery vault” is a reference that architects put on their CVs).
I found the personal details the most touching – the fading wedding photographs, the etches of loved ones, the dedications from friends. The more stylish the vault, the less I liked them. Some of the stark black stone vaults (no details except an engraved cross) reminded me of the designer clothes shops on Bond Street. (Make of that what you will).
Some families have aimed for the sky – literally – by adding angels to the tops of their vaults. Birds now use them as nests, which may not have been the look they were going for.
Others decided to add angels to the vault entrances – selfie with a stone angel anyone?! They inevitably decay and blacken with the years, particularly if the vault is not visited. You can tell which families still tend to their graves, as the places are clean and tidy. Likewise, you can tell which families haven’t paid their rent – the broken glass, rusting locks and empty vaults all tell their own tales.
Maria Eva Duarte de Peron – universally known as Evita – died in July 1952. Her body was immediately embalmed, but she was not buried immediately. In fact, the circumstances surrounding her corpse are somewhat mysterious.
In 1955, the military junta took power in Argentina, and all mention of the Perons became illegal. Juan Peron fled to Spain in exile, and Evita’s body was – allegedly – buried in Milan until 1971, when Peron had it exhumed and flown to Spain where it sat in his living room. (Quite what his new wife thought of this is, sadly, not recorded).
Peron returned to Argentina in 1973, took office again, and died in 1974. His body was briefly displayed alongside Evita’s.
Evita herself was, at last, buried in her family tomb in La Recoleta. The tomb is said to be so secure that it could survive a nuclear attack.
The vault is still decorated with flowers as Evita’s myth still persists in Argentina today. (The closest analogy I can think of is Princess Diana).
Along with the Mona Lisa and Tutankhamen’s Death Mask, Evita’s grave is one of those things that you have no chance of seeing in peace. Or even of getting a decent photograph of.
Good to Know
La Recoleta is located in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires.
The cemetery is approx. 15 mins walk from Callao Subte station (Line D).
The cemetery is also on the Buenos Aires Bus (Tourist Bus) Yellow line. (Although, strangely, it isn’t called this).
There is a good and longstanding café – La Biela – opposite the cemetery entrance. As well as food and drink, it has a collection of racing car memorabilia. And watch the 2 old guys at the front…
The morning after we visited La Recoleta, Simon said he’d been dreaming about ghosts. No prizes for guessing what inspired that…
“They were nice ghosts” he said. “Very friendly”.
So there you have it: La Recoleta, home of friendly ghosts!