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.