The Recoleta Cemetery: The City Within A City

by M-Gillies

The imposing entrance to the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Surrounded by ominous neo-classical gates, a Doric-columned entrance portico and a labyrinth of richly ornate mausoleums – mixed in architecture resembling chapels, Greek temples, Roman cenotaphs, Egyptian obelisks and miniature mansions – intricately detailed with carved symbols of death-related images, Argentina’s Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is a combination of architecture, historical figures and urban legends that has become the physical textbook of Argentina’s chronicle.

With more than 6,400 elaborately vaulted tombs and majestic mausoleums – 70 of which have been declared historic monuments – the Recoleta Cemetery is the final resting place for the nation’s most illustrious figures from the elite, aspiring middle class, friends, enemies and those who contributed to the general welfare of Argentina such as Eva Peron. With Presidents and politicians, Nobel Prize winners, literary scribes, entertainers, scientists, military leaders, sports figures and those who have died tragically, the necropolis residents read like a Who’s who of Argentinian history and society.

Covering 13.5 acres of land, Recoleta is rumored to be the most expensive real estate in the city with its statues of cherubs cast in white stone; crying widows fashioned from stone; hooded effigies of women staring forlornly downwards, palms spread in mute anguish; grieving mothers shaped from marble; winged angels atop cupolas, their hair in tresses while they blow in trumpets. These are the symbols of the golden age of Buenos Aires, when it was one of the world’s richest cities (1880-1930).

But Recoleta wasn’t always the home for the wealthy and the successful. Once the garden of the adjoining church, Our Lady of Pilar, Recoleta was formerly a large convent, built in 1732 by monks from Augustine’s Order of Recoletos. However, the congregation experienced a profound change in the nineteenth century after the country gained independence from Spain. The convent was soon disbanded and prevented a common life, only to be turned into a community and apostolic missionary by Governor Martin Rodriguez in 1822.

With the Argentinian government prohibiting inhumations in churches, the Monastery of the Recoletos Monks was soon transformed into what was then called Cementerio del Norte (Cemetery of the North). Though modest at first, it was at the request of president Bernadino Rivadavia that the cemetery underwent its first metamorphosis. Commissioning civil engineer, Prospero Catelin to layout the cemetery, the chapel was expanded, the inner streets rebuilt and a peristyle ornamental front erected to give the property an emphasized French style.

However, after a ravaging epidemic of yellow fever in 1870, the landscape of Buenos Aires changed when many upper-class families moved from the south of the city to Barrio Norte (Northern neighborhood) and the Recoleta district to escape the outbreak. It was in this area of Buenos Aires that many of the wealthy were able to avoid the contagion due to the height of the terrain reducing the presence of insect transmission. Since then, Recoleta has only grown to become one of the most affluential neighborhoods, with private family mansions, foreign embassies and luxury hotels, garnering the name of Paris of South America.

As northern Buenos Aires prospered, the cemetery once again underwent a transformation by Italian architect Juan Antonio Bushiazzo under the request of mayor Torcuato de Alvear in 1881. Soon the cemetery expanded to contain many elaborate marble mausoleums decorated with statues ranging in a wide variety of architectural styles, from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic. From 1880-1930, most materials used in the construction of tombs were imported from Paris and Milan, while the entire cemetery was sectioned into city-blocks with wide walkways branching into sidewalks filled with mausoleums.

Amongst the many mausoleums and the wealthy is the tomb of famed president, Carlos Pellegrini. It was during a time when the population of Argentina soared, Buenos Aires began receiving millions of European immigrants, and soon the national debt increased. While the arrival of a large workforce helped the economy expand, the demands of infrastructure led to an economic and social crisis. With foreign debt doubling, salaries dropping, unemployment growing and strikes occurring more and more, combined with then President Juarez Celman committing electoral fraud, a violent revolution erupted in 1890.

After the removal of Celman, Pellegrini was elected as new President. Quickly, conditions improved with him cleaning up finances and creating the Banco de la Nacion Argentina. Though Pellegrini was only in office for two years, Argentinians attributed him with navigating the country through the worst economic crisis. After his death in 1906, he was interred in La Recoleta Cemetery, where his sculpture depicts him seated atop his casket issuing orders, while a female figure and child – symbolizing the Republic and its future) wait at his feet.

Eva Peron, finally rests in peace in her family's mausoleum after her body was stolen.

Perhaps the most famous of all is the vault of Eva (Evita) Peron (nee, Duarte), second wife of President Juan Peron (1885-1974) and First Lady of Argentina. It is Evita, whose numerous memorials throughout Argentina can attest to the nation’s adoration of the servitude she brought to the country as an influential political leader and humanitarian. But even after her death, her post-mortem pilgrimage to La Recoleta Cemetery would take 25 years.

After her death in 1952 at the age of 33, her body was embalmed with glycerine by Dr. Pedro Ara and her body stored in her former office of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) building for nearly two years. However, when a military coup overthrew her husband, Juan Peron during the Liberating Revolution of 1955, the body was removed, its whereabouts unknown.

For the next 16 years, the military dictatorship of Argentina issued a ban on Peronism, making it illegal to possess pictures of Juan and even speak their names. In 1971, the location of Evita’s body was revealed. By 1973, Peron was elected President of Argentina once again, however, his death the following year resulted in his third wife to succeed him. While in power, Isabel Peron had Evita’s body returned to Argentina before having it entombed in the Duarte family vault.

To prevent her body from being stolen, as it had been many times by various military governments before, extensive measures were taken by the Argentine government to secure Evita’s tomb, including building a trapdoor in the marble flooring which led to a compartment containing two coffins, where another trapdoor led to a second compartment wherein lay the body of Evita, 27ft. underground.

Much like cemeteries from around the world there are stories of cultural heroes, but also folkloric tales of the macabre, and in the case of Rufina Cambaceres, the tale was just one of the man that had occurred in the at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Her tale was the tale of the girl who died twice.

With fears arising over being buried alive none where more shocking then the tale of Cambaceres. It was on her 19th birthday in 1902 when the young woman was mistakenly pronounced dead following a cataleptic attack. With preparations made for her burial, her body was entombed, only to be exhumed soon after to find the interior roof of the casket clawed before she herself died of a heart attack. As the urban legend goes, when Alfredo Gath – co-owner of the famed Gath and Chaves department store – heard the tale, he himself was so horrified by the prospect of being buried alive that he commisioned a special mechanical coffin with an opening device and alarm bell to be constructed. Having successfully tested the coffin himself 12 times, it was on the 13th time when the mechanism failed and he died inside.

Though there is no evidence that this truly happened – considering also that Gath died in 1936 – it does however, represent the lore that Recoleta Cemetery has garnered itself.

However, it’s not just the dead who reside in Recoleta Cemetery. Roaming among the tombs, sunbathing on statues and fed eight pounds of kibble a day, the Recoleta Cemetery is home to over 80 feral cats. Part tour guides, part watchful guardians, the cats of Recoleta have been part of the cemetery for the past 20 years and are cared for (spayed/neutered), fed twice a day. Much like the 4800 tombs made famous on the 5.4 acres of cemetery grounds, the colony of cats have become a fixture at the cemetery and are looked after not by the cemetery but by a group of volunteer women who tend to the cats daily.

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