La Recoleta Cemetery: House(s) of the Dead – but with no guns or zombies and stuff: April 11, 2013

No surprise: Buenos Aires is full of beautiful buildings with diverse architectural styles.

Surprise: One of the best places to see it in microcosm is a cemetery.

La Recoleta Cemetery is THE address for the dead (and the undead, judging by the number of other tourists I saw there).  Behind a high, red brick wall in the tony Recoleta neighborhood lies this miniature town of jaw-dropping mausoleums. The tombs are built side by side, grouped in blocks along “streets,” but the cemetery is riddled with alleyways created by the blocks. Though many people flock to the cemetery, the layout is such that one can easily find an isolated corner or 200. It’s easy to lose oneself among these houses of the dead.

It’s morbid, but magnificent.

I couldn’t help but stare in fascination at the vaults. Some of them looked like Catholic cathedrals in miniature, with ornate pillars, cherubim and other flourishes in extravagant abundance. Others had sleek, black granite fronting them, like the mausoleum for Eva Peron (another big draw of the cemetery. Pro tip: Her remains are in the Duarte family mausoleum). A crypt with a carving of an Egyptian pharoah on it sat next to one with the head of a baby cherub on its front. Many of them had glass doors through which you could see altars with shelves of coffins stacked underneath. Several are awesomely old, dating back to the 1800s.

 Not all of them were rectangular or even buildings. There were fabulous sculptures and monuments erected to the memory of the monstrously wealthy long gone. The tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak features a bronze sculpture of her and her dog. Many people rub the nose of the dog (for luck? Because they like dogs? Are unaware of things called germs?) which keeps its nose a bright, shiny yellow. The side opposite the entrance (at the other end of the main corridor) has more of the free-standing sculptures and memorials.

 I saw someone cleaning the inside of the “Ponce de Leon” (no, seriously, that was the name) family tomb,  but others were not so well-kept. Some were crumbling, had their glass fronts broken and/or were littered inside with trash (cheez people, this IS a cemetery!) Curiously, water spigots are everywhere, though there is hardly any grass (perhaps it’s to fill the flower vases, but still, it seems like there’s a tap every five feet.)

 Though it’s a cemetery, signs of life are everywhere. Cats prowl the ground freely, as does the smell of their defecations. The atmosphere is still but it’s punctuated frequently by the snaps and flutter of cameras. And just because most of the residents are dead doesn’t mean they’re not making money. Be careful of the people “offering” to show you around (a price tag is usually included but not said).

You may not get to shoot at zombies at these houses for the dead, but the Recoleta Cemetery is definitely worth a round or two.

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