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.
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…