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.