The town of Tocopilla on Chile’s northern coast is trapped on a narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the towering Andes. Its possibilities for growth are limited and its economy has been depressed since Pinochet revoked its status as a major port in punishment for it being fiercely left wing.
Although the town has recovered somewhat, it doesn’t hold a candle to its glory days. It has decayed – its unpainted walls and rusty roofs have blended into the brown and grey of the mountains and it has become an unwitting desert camouflage. But it doesn’t take much paint to brighten up a small mausoleum and it doesn’t take many small ornaments, lively plastic flowers and photos set into niches to create a speckled sea of colour over the sand. And that’s what Tocopilla’s cemetery has become – an oasis of colour in the midst of a bone-dry town.
Even the 7.8 earthquake of 2007 couldn’t keep the cemetery from coming to life again. After the walls and tombs were violently disturbed and their contents offered up to the blue November sky, swift action was taken to repair the cemetery; certainly for health and sanitation but mostly for the dignity of the families and their departed loved ones.
New walls were erected and the temporary quarters in niches were quickly filled. In true South American form, the niches, short-term as they were meant to be, were brought to life again with care and attention of family members who couldn’t bear to leave departed loved ones feeling desolate or misplaced. The decorations came out, the musical Christmas cards went in and visitors flocked to the space. Not even an earthquake prevents a quality family visit with the departed, who will rest in the most dignified style that little money can buy.