Category Archives: Cemetery Culture in South America

Rich in character, like a flea market where obscure ornaments sit in silent anticipation, where the path from the ‘poor Christ’ eventually winds over to the grand mausoleums, the cemetery is one of the liveliest places in town.

Day of the Dead, Fast Approaching

November 1st. (Bigger and certainly more important than Hallowe’en, which many South Americans consider a commercial and a pagan celebration, refusing to participate despite North American-style stores and discos doing their best to promote it.)

Imagine, upon arrival at the gates of Santiago de Chile’s General Cemetery, being swept up in the multitude, rubbing shoulders with the colour and excitement of families as they bustle towards the entrance carrying their lunches, brooms, pails and ornaments. Imagine standing in line with the crowds to buy flowers and balloons from one of the dozens of kiosks that line the exterior wall of the cemetery, and then in the heat of the mid-day sun, ordering traditional peach and barley juice and kebabs from sellers who set up makeshift barbecues, smoke rising from every street corner.

Adding to the din of music that blares from somewhere (everywhere!) city buses that exhale heavy diesel fumes pull up one after the other, stopping briefly to allow elderly couples to step out. Children jump off, pulling at their parents’ sleeves to drag them towards ice cream sellers and organ grinders.

All of this… and you haven’t even entered the gates yet.

During The Day of the Dead close to a million visitors walk through the grand portals of Santiago General Cemetery. This is not taking into account the families who walk across the street to visit the Catholic Cemetery or those who visit “Memory Park”, which is a nearby North American-style lawn cemetery.  In a city of more than six million, this sector is the hub of activity for the week leading up to The Day of the Dead.

While in North America The Day of the Dead passes virtually unnoticed, in South America it’s an important reconnection, reminder and celebration of those you love. The living and dead come together to share a glass of wine, a meal and to catch up on gossip. Many families like to clean and prepare the tomb the week before any important national holiday so that on the day itself, they’re free to just sit and visit with a bottle of wine and a homemade meal.

A visit to a cemetery at the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador confirmed the importance of this holiday all over South America. Here they celebrate, for the most part, on November 2nd. The streets are also full of noisy activity and vendors with barbecued meat, largely pigs on huge spits. The traditional drink for Ecuador’s Day of the Dead is a hot purple concoction made from black corn flour, fruits and berries, which is served with a sweet bread shaped in the form of a baby, similar in appearance (but not in taste) to gingerbread men.

The Day of the Dead celebrations vary according to where you live. Being the driest place on earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert provides a perfect environment for bodies to naturally mummify. In some of its Andean communities, families actually disinter the bodies of their departed ones, seat themselves on a chair opposite and literally enjoy a face-to-face visit.

Creepy? Not at all. Simply a special family gathering.

Doors to Eternity

Illustrious entrances to Santiago General Cemetery

Two of the four main entrances to the sacred grounds of El Cementerio General, Santiago, Chile.

Beautiful works of art on doors

Winged virtue and protection, “Shhh, they are resting,” “I’m here to comfort you.” – three of hundreds of beautiful doors and façades.


In addition to Santiago’s General Cemetery’s main portals, there exist thousands of individual doorways leading to eternity.

Carved from marble or forged out of wrought iron, beautiful works of art are designed to invite you beyond today and into a place where time is irrelevant, somewhere to commiserate with those who rest inside. Very likely it’s an extended family, beginning with the patriarch. He will have the place of honour, entombed upstairs beneath the altar, straight across from this elegant entrance. And he’ll be surrounded by immediate family. There will be a trap door leading to the basement where other family members (somehow less deserving of higher levels) are buried.

In life you would never be so bold as to approach the house belonging to this family, it would probably have armed guards at the gate. But here, you can put your nose to the door and dare to ask about their history, the essence of which, at least in terms of their spiritual devotion to one another and to a higher power, is evidenced at the entrance.

Maybe the graceful figures carved here are protection from such intrusion, the intention being that upon seeing their definitive beauty, you will realise that you don’t need to know any more.  The family is saying, “Let’s leave it at that, our family secrets are forever secret. Look upon us how we wish to be seen. Have we not, after all, created such beauty here that we will all be rewarded?”

May I take your coat?

coat and hat“No, thank you. I won’t be long. I’ll just put it here.” And you imagine the man bending low as he carefully places the cloak on the bench before setting a small notebook beside it and covering it with his hat.

I ran across this monument in an upper-middle class neighbourhood of the Santiago General Cemetery and was captivated by its simple mystery. I’m not sure why it evokes both sadness and comfort – this hat and cloak placed so casually across the bench, as though the owner just dropped in for a cup of tea – this, his effort to make his situation transient when it’s so permanently cast in stone, his desire not to be there against the power of an unsympathetic destiny.

Or maybe it’s quite the opposite. Maybe it says, “Thank you. This looks like a lovely place to rest. I think I’ll stay awhile. May I leave this here?” and the man walks only a few steps to rest under a tree at the edge of the plaza.

I wonder if there is a notebook there and what it contains. Poetry perhaps, as Chileans are known for poetry. But it will remain private.

Who designed this bench that is not for sitting? Was it the wish of the person who died? Or did the family decide upon it?

I struggle with the ambiguity of the concept. Perhaps that’s the point and it rejects any discussion. South American resignation: It is what it is. Embrace it.

So You Think You Have a Hard Bed?

Chileans are masters of quick wit and they’re capable, in a split second, of inventing apt slangs that immediately twist a situation into something absurdly comical. They love to have a laugh at their own expense and often there’s little regard for political correctness.

I make no apologies for absconding with one of several Chilean slangs for ‘cemetery’ and using it for the title of my book.

‘Hard Bed Hotel’ (Hotel Cama Dura) needs no explanation and it’s perfect for the story of a desparate guy with half a brain (but a whole lot of good hair) who sets up digs in the family mausoleum. As it turns out there are, in reality, numerous living souls who share his situation and who find themselves sleeping side by side with the millions who have rested there for decades if not centuries.

In addition to ‘Hard Bed Hotel’, following is a list of Chilean slangs referring to ‘cemetery’ or for someone who’s half-way or already there. Some of the punch is lost in translation but you’ll get the idea:

  • Patio of the mutes (Patio de los Callados). This needs no explanation.
  • Where the souls grumble (Donde las almas penan). This comes from the idea that you can hear afflicted souls when you pass through a cemetery.
  • The parrot’s on his back (Se fue de espaldas el loro). You know it can only mean one thing when you see a bird lying on his back.
  • Dress in your wooden pyjamas (Ponerse al pijama de madera)
  • Stretch your legs (Estira la pata). Don’t use this one if you want to say that you’re going for a walk. In Chile, they picture someone flat out, legs stretched inside the box.
  • To cut out (Irse Cortina) This slang comes from ‘irse cortada‘, which means to get cut out.
  • Put away the sandals (Parar las chalas) Literally, “To Stop the Sandals”
  • Hand in your tools (Entregar las herramientas). Imagine taking the time to do this before you pass away.
  • The beginning of the autopsy (Principio de autopsia). Used for someone who’s at death’s door.
  • You smell like flowers (‘Andai’ pasa’o a flores). This in itself is a slang for smelling like flowers. If it wasn’t explained, it wouldn’t make sense because it is not literal. You can also say ‘you smell like gladiolas’. There are always flower sellers at the gates (to say nothing of those inside) of the cemeteries and normally you pass by on the way in and out. Thus this subtle hint about dying.
  • Ready for the photo (Listo pa’ la fóto) from the tradition of placing a framed photograph of the deceased at his tomb
  • At last the white smoke! (Por fin salió el humo blanco). With an obvious reference to a drawn-out selection of a new pope, this is also used when you’ve been waiting for someone you don’t particularly care for to pass away and when they finally die.
  • You’re out and about with the permission of the gate keeper. (Anda con permiso del panteonaro). This doesn’t have to do with dying exactly but it’s related to the cemetery. It is what someone might say to a person of very advanced age, meaning that they’re so old that they’ve risen from the grave and are wandering outside of the cemetery with permission of the cemetery gate keeper. 

Just a note about Chilean slangs in general. Although these are not cemetery-related, I can’t resist including here:

  • Rubber bell (Campana de goma) This is used to describe a person who’s very quiet, never voices an opinion nor participates.
  • Get into the envelope (Meterse al sobre). A mother might say this when she’s telling her children to go to bed.
  • He answers both phones (Contesta los dos teléfonos). He’s bisexual.

Having said all of this, Wikipedia  has a great list of English slang expressions for dying, some of which are similar and are also good for a laugh.

An Invitation to El Dorado

At a Cemetery Wall

Sharing stories through the walls during one of several Christmas visits, niches decorated for the season.

People take stories to their graves. And probably not just one story, but many.

I would invite you to sit with me on a bench at the base of the cemetery wall – its niches crammed with lives that were cut short, thin concrete walls separating those short lives from the cruel ones and the ones that were long and exotic – and just contemplate the silence.

Consider that it might be possible to slip in beside the souls who lie there and ask them to whisper what they wouldn’t reveal when they were alive.

Tales emerge from behind the walls. They creep into your consciousness, encouraging you to take events from someone’s life and weave them into stories. Real or imagined, you might never know but they’re treasures just the same. Perhaps the elusive El Dorado really lies in the cemeteries of South America.

So I ask for permission to take the stories and use them as I see fit; maybe there’s some truth to the tales, maybe not. In any case, I rationalise that the souls have unburdened themselves.

But information doesn’t just travel in one direction. The South American cemetery is a place of exchange, where conversations penetrate tomb walls to enter the realm beyond. Deep secrets from the living are entrusted to the souls who exist on the other side. And these silent souls, happy for your visit, starved for your information, remain intent on your words. They act like psycholgists scribbling crazy notes behind the couch as bits of your own life are, with permission, deposited into an eternal vault.

These deposits mingle with the lives of souls who have passed on, and stories from the dead and the living merge into marvelous, twisted tales.

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…

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.