The Freelancer

Cemetery Caretaker Shack and Chair

The caretaker’s chair is abandoned as she rushes off to do the bidding of a ‘patrona’.

We found Norma watering flowers at the foot of a long wall of niches. She was wearing a worn blue smock over a cotton skirt and a pair of practical running shoes. “Sure,” she got it right away, “I know what you want, and yes, there are lots of stories here, some already well-known, others not.”

“Of course I’ll pay you for your stories,” I was anxious to convince her. “Do you think you can come to my place for lunch?”

“Can I bring two friends? Caretakers, like myself.” She made it clear she wouldn’t come alone.

A week later, three freelance cemetery caretakers (two Normas and one Alicia) showed up at my door. The stories unfolded one after the other, so fast it was hard to keep up. They told me a few ghost stories, some of which were standard fare but, they assured me, “Our version is the truth and it’s better.” They described the doing and undoing of curses and told me how they had heard scratching on coffins from people who had been being buried alive. They related how they had once been trapped in the cemetery after curfew during Pinochet’s rule and how they had seen soldiers dump bodies into a common grave. They told me how spirits followed them to the gates at the end of the day to protect them from vandals and how playful ghosts played jokes on co-workers. The Normas and Alicia stayed and talked for hours.

What cut me the deepest was the reality of their own lives, the fact that they were so desparately poor and at the mercy of their ‘patrones,’ whose family tombs they cleaned and groomed. Santiago General Cemetery has more than 400 freelance cemetery caretakers, most of them women. The work is informal, the patrons paying according to their conscience. Basically the caretakers work for tips. But they hope to earn between $7 and $10 per month per patron. Often the patrons forgot to stop by or they’re months late or maybe they deliberately avoid paying. In spite of that, the caretakers continue with the work in consideration of their muertitos (little dead ones). And because, well, what else can they do?

The two Normas and Alicia all inherited their Patios from their mothers who were caretakers before them. Like most other positions in Chile, it’s who you know. The striking thing was that they didn’t seem to consider any other options; it was as though their prescribed lot in life was to follow in their mothers’ footsteps and they considered themselves lucky to inherit the jobs.

Anyway, during lunch and without warning, tears started rolling down Norma’s cheeks. She said, “I’m so grateful. The day I ran into you at the cemetery I was begging my muertitos for a miracle. I promised to do anything if they would bring me some money. I was willing to crawl up onto the roofs and do a proper cleaning… anything. I had no money for tea or even for rice. My power was cut off too, and I had no gas for my stove. Then you showed up and made me this offer. My muertitos saw to it. They didn’t let me suffer long.”

As far as I know, Norma still works in the same Patio; her days are long and full of empty promises but then there’s the occasional miracle. Norma was the inspiration for ‘Hard Bed Hotel.’

Upstairs, Downstairs | Sacred Space

Niches, Like Apartments, Line the Long Walls of Santiago's General Cemetery

Thousands of tombs embedded in the long walls of Santiago’s General Cemetery disappear into the horizon.

It’s a little city with different neighbourhoods. Some are populated with low-cost, high-density real estate which rise four or five storeys above ground while across the street at the Catholic Cemetery ancient catacombs burrow several levels underneath. Then there are the patios that are more like wealthy estates with sprawling mansions. But the point is that these burial towns not only extend across the surface but they go up and down, making 86 hectares a gross understatement.

Imagine the lives preserved in this place, the lives now lost in time, apparently nothing more than dust and bones and memories. But the stories here are literally untold! People DO take stories to their graves. And we are left to imagine.

Each square metre of this real estate is cherished in every sense of the word. It has real dollar value that can be traded. People buy, sell and rent tombs. Niches can be leased for periods of, say 25 years, after which you will be asked to renew the lease or move out. If a family is in need of cash and can manage to ‘reduce’ bodies (a topic for another day) to fit into a smaller, common space, then they are free to sell their extra niche. So now and then, you encounter a familiar ‘For Sale’ sign, the kind you see in any other neighbourhood. To date I’m not aware of realtors who make commissions on this but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Most importantly this real estate is cherished as the final resting place, it’s the sacred address where visitors are invited to enjoy a regular chat.

As you can imagine, walking through 86 hectares of a town that’s home to these millions of souls – most of them willingly displaying some hint of their personality, some trace of their lives, some detail that suggests the end of their story – often stops you in your tracks. Who was that person? You make assumptions about ordinary lives until a niggling sign gets under your skin and you find yourself holding a stranger in your thoughts.

The wonder of the South American cemetery, with all of its adornments needs to be seen. I’ve posted a few photos here that might explain just some of what I want to say. I’ll be adding more as time goes on.

Santiago’s General Cemetery – 86 Hectares of Stories

Whether you enter through the main central arch to the patio of renowned politicians and heroes or slip through a side gate into one of its more popular neighbourhoods, El Cementerio General welcomes you with the sound of silence and an abundance of character. More than two million souls lie inside these walls, their history buried with them. Only glimpses left behind.

Mausoleums in Santiago General Cemetery

Mausoleums line a passage of a mid-upper class cemetery sector

Walls of burial niches in Santiago's cemetery

Decorative niches fill the walls of a popular sector in Santiago’s General Cemetery

These glimpses are what draw me back time and again:
– What’s the story behind the abandoned Snow White statue that sits staring onto the dirt of an unkempt grave?
– Who is the family eating birthday cake at the foot of a child’s niche, from which they just finished stringing colourful balloons? And how many years have they come, cherishing their bittersweet memories, to celebrate their child’s existence now somewhere beyond?
– What about the yellowed sweater that drapes over the dusty altar inside a destitute mausoleum where a broom and cluttered dustbin were suddenly deserted in mid-sweep?

More than the beautiful passages lined with elegant marble and stained glass mausoleums – works of art designed by famous architects – the common walls of niches are what stop you in your tracks. They are what bring the magic and mystery. The history behind Chile’s great national figures is something from schoolbooks. But for the most part no one has written about the lives of its more humble citizens who lived and died amidst a collection of extraordinary challenges. So their graves and niches pull you in; photos with eyes that ask if you might have met them somewhere else and eclectic displays of ornaments that hint at their favourite things.

This one post can’t do more than introduce the beauty and diversity of the General Cemetery’s multiple sectors with its neighbourhoods clearly defined as rich and poor: the statues of “the rich Christ” and “the poor Christ”; the altars to locally-proclaimed saints; the ‘for sale’ signs that hang from tombs; the dogs and cats that wander freely; the lush palm and araucaria trees, birds of paradise and ivy; the overgrown adobe walls full of unattended niches; the barren dirt sectors that are burnt by the sun.

I can only mention Patio 29, made famous only a few years ago when it was discovered that bodies thrown there during Pinochet’s dictatorship had subsequently been identified incorrectly and people who had thought they had found their loved ones had to begin the search again.

Like the people who lie buried in this sacred ground, the cemetery itself is revered for its treasure of secret stories.

More on this to come in the future posts…

A Writer from the Desert

One day I just happened to see Hernan Rivera Letelier being interviewed on Chilean TV. There was something about him, something about the way he spoke, soft but confident, not pretentious, just another guy from the desert although he had gained international recognition as a writer. The book he was talking about that afternoon was called ” Santa María de las Flores Negras,” about a very well-known and shamefully dark event in Chilean history. He brought it to life with fictional characters.

The book wasn’t available in English so I was determined to read it in Spanish because I wanted to know how he told the story, to meet his characters and to experience his craft. I think I read the first three pages over and over at least twenty times and was so disappointed that I couldn’t understand it that I broke down and cried. But I persisted. A decent dictionary didn’t cover all of the northern Chilean slang but my husband helped me past some of that. Finally I finished the book. And I wanted more!

My favourite of all of his books is called “My Name is Malarrosa”, a simple story with rare types who find themselves falling into the most unusual situations. It’s the kind of story that tickles you inside, that bubbles with innocence at the same time that it amazes you with its dark turns. To say it was inspiring is an understatement. I felt it gave me permission to write the way I want to write and about what I want to write. His style is narrative, short on conversation, big on humour and overflowing with small details that make all the difference. This is where I want to take my readers – to an English version of stories packed with weird and wonderful Latin American concepts.

Tocopilla Cemetery – The Starting Point

Tocopilla Cemetery

Christmas time in Tocopilla’s cemetery. You can hear musical greeting cards singing from the tombs.

The first time I entered a South American cemetery was with my husband and his grandfather during my first trip to northern Chile. We arrived in Tocopilla on a Saturday night and the next morning I followed them down the street and through the high cemetery gates to the tiny grave of my husband’s sister who had died as a baby more than 40 years earlier. The grandfather limped over to a communal water tap to fill a plastic bucket before we wound our way past walls of niches to a low concrete structure. Like the surrounding tombs, it rose less than a metre from the dry earth, but it had a high, deep headstone with a glass window for displaying ornaments, plastic flowers and toys. And like the rest, it would be washed on Sundays.

The grandfather plucked a rag from his pocket, dipped it into the bucket and began to wipe down the entire tomb, shining the decorative blue ceramic tiles on the headstone and along the edges, murmuring to the child whose personality had never had time to blossom. Nevertheless her favourite toys were well known and her character had grown out of the family’s imagination. “Natalie likes dolls with long blonde hair and stories about princesses.” What little girl doesn’t?  She grew older but always stayed the same. My husband picked up another rag and joined his grandfather, bantering and, like any big brother, he paused now and then to tease Natalie who responded with silence.

For my Chilean-born husband this was a perfectly normal Sunday morning but for me (more accustomed to things like mowing the lawn or lingering over the Sunday paper) it was an extraordinary experience and an introduction into Chilean cemetery culture. It led to me begging to stop and visit every cemetery we came across. I still can’t get enough. But it’s not just the cemeteries themselves – their beauty and tranquility; it’s the culture, the assertion, “They’re only gone if they’re forgotten” and the tenderness that lives on.


For a Start – Ghost Stories from the Desert

Chilean altiplano | Atacama Desert

Travelling along the altiplano, between Tocopilla and Calama

The desert is not at all what I imagined; it’s much more. Myths and superstitions that help shape the lives of its people materialise to explain the unforgiving nature and often unexpected blessings of the arid landscape.

Once while in Tocopilla, after I expressed an interest in local folklore a friend showed up with a folder full of loose pages. She said they were ghost stories – all true – told by people of ‘la pampa.’

One was an account of a young mother who had fallen ill and died, leaving three small children to fend for themselves while their father laboured in the mine. Although the children struggled to maintain the house and prepare meals, their grief and inability to cope got the better of them and the humble little house began to fall into ruin. But one morning, they awoke to find the kitchen clean and their clothes washed and hanging on the line. The next morning they found tea and fresh bread on the table and their mother’s apron hanging on the nail by the door. All of the neighbours swore they had nothing to do with it and were as surprised as the children. The account ended there.

I found that with these stories, you have to draw the obvious conclusion.

Another tells of a barmaid who had been dragged some distance into the desert, beaten, raped, and murdered. Not long after this tragic incident, a young woman could be seen sitting on a rock at the outskirts of the town each night, waving down trucks. Later a deserted truck would be discovered and its driver would be found several kilometres away, lying dead, dehydrated with a look of terror on his cold, dead face.

Who knows how many other loose pages are floating around in the wind or buried beneath the sand? But I’m not the only one to be inspired by the desert of northern Chile. Foreigners and local inhabitants all find their own reasons –sometimes wrapped in climate or politics or just survival.