Tango Words

La Recoleta Cemetery

Saturday 15 April: We caught the subte from Palermo, just around the corner from our apartment, on a beautiful sunny day. Strolled round the street market outside the cemetery, bought a couple of hand-made belts from their designer and had an early lunch before entering the cemetery through the splendid neo-classical, Doric-columned gates.

You can take a free tour, but we decided to make our own way, wandering for hours through this ‘city of the dead’ along streets lined with incredible sarcophagi and statues. The 14 acre site contains 4691 vaults, all above ground. Over ninety of them have been declared National Historical Monuments by the Argentine government.

There’s so much to see, walking along tree-lined main walkways and branching off into alleys filled with ornate mausoleums in a variety of architectural styles — Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Greek, Baroque, Neo-Gothic. Apparently most of the materials used between 1880 and 1930 in the construction of tombs were imported from Paris and Milan by the wealthy families of Buenos Aires, many of whom still maintain their own vaults. And you really do have to be wealthy to be buried here, with real estate being among the city’s most expensive. There’s a local saying that it’s cheaper to live extravagantly all your life than to be buried in La Recoleta.

Eva Peron is buried here, of course, in the rather plain tomb of the Familia Duarte, regularly decorated with flowers by visitors. Shortly after her death in 1952, President Juan Peron was overthrown by a military coup and the plans for a magnificent memorial were discarded. ‘Peronism’ was banned and Evita’s embalmed body removed from display and apparently ‘lost’. Then in 1971 the military dictators revealed that she was buried in a crypt in Milan under a false name.

Juan Peron was living in exile in Spain at the time and had Evita’s body exhumed and transported to his home where he and his third wife (Eva was his second) kept it on a platform in their dining room. It wasn’t until after Juan returned to Argentina, becoming President for the third time in 1973, and his death in 1974 that Evita’s body was returned to Argentina and buried in Recoleta. Apparently many of the wealthy families of Recoleta’s other ‘residents’ weren’t too pleased about this in view of Evita’s lack of aristocracy and what were perceived as left-wing sympathies.

One final note on this subject: Peron biographers Marysa Navarro and Nicholas Fraser write that the claim is often made that her tomb is so secure that it could withstand a nuclear attack. “It reflects a fear,” they write, “that the body will disappear from the tomb and that the woman, or rather the myth of the woman, will reappear.”

Many of the mausoleums are clearly well maintained. Some, rather eerily, have photographs on the outside wall of the occupants in (presumably) happier times. Others have fallen into disrepair, with cobwebs, cracked marble, broken glass and litter. Although that and the prowling feral cats seem only to add to the strange charm of this magical necropolis — a contrast between classical magnificence and faded glories that you find in other parts of the city too.

As you stroll around you see all the popular graveyard motifs: skulls and crossed bones, marble wreaths, draped urns, gargoyles, winged hourglasses, weeping women looking adoringly up at statues of their dead men, and of course, the ubiquitous stone angels. We took many photographs, but here I’ve collected some of The Angels of Recoleta.