KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
One of the must-see sights in Buenos Aires is the famous Recoleta Cemetery. While it is no longer the largest, it is definitely the oldest and the most astonishing. In 1822 the Argentine government forbid the burial of remains in churches and convents and obtained land from the Monastery of Recoleta Monks. Many of the most famous people of the city were then buried here and later a major reconstruction was undertaken to create ‘streets’ along which the burial chambers were erected. An ornamental entrance was built and a wall enclosed the ground, creating what now seems like an outdoor art gallery of incredible sculptures and mausoleums.
We arrived in order to participate in one of the free English tours of the cemetery, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anil wasn’t too keen on the whole idea, being a Hindu who prefers the idea of cremation, he didn’t really fancy the notion of walking in another cemetery. I was there to see the fine sculptures and to visit the last resting place of Eva Peron.
The most heartbreaking story we heard from the guide was the tale of a young girl who died in the early 1900s. Apparently, she suffered from seizures and was thought to have died following a particularly severe seizure. As was the custom at that time, she was buried immediately after the conclusion of a short wake. The following day, the custodian at the family vault noticed that the coffin seemed to have moved slightly and he contacted the parents of the young girl. When the coffin was opened, they found scratches on the girl’s face and the top of the coffin.
The parents constructed a separate mausoleum beside the family vault with a beautiful statue of a young woman standing with her hand on the door, as if trying to open it. From that time on, bodies were not allowed to be interred in Recoleta before at least twelve hours had passed from the time of death.
I later learned that it was customary for the date of death to be inscribed on the vaults, but not the date of birth. I was surprised that the guide did not point this out – though she did tell us a great deal of interesting things about the cemetery. There are almost 5,000 vaults in Recoleta and many hold up to twenty coffins. The owners of the tombs are charged a small annual fee but the title of the property is never lost, even if the fee remains unpaid. Some vaults appear to be completely abandoned; perhaps all the members of the family have died or the ones remaining have fallen on hard times. We did see one vault that was draped in netting as it has become so unstable that falling stones could injure visitors. Still, the cemetery maintains the ownership of the property in the name of the original titleholders.
There are very few internments in Recoleta nowadays, but we did happen to see a family arrived with huge floral wreaths and we moved to another part of the cemetery to give them privacy. I noticed that we passed near a grave that had a security guard standing at attention. There were several people placing roses on the tomb and there was a photo of a man taped to the plaque on the front.
A couple of days after we arrived in Buenos Aires, the former president of Argentina, Raul Alfonsin, passed away at the age of 82. I watched some of the funeral proceedings on television and it was very moving to see the honour that was paid to him. He was much loved by many of the people, as he was the first democratically elected president following the dark days of the military dictatorship. His efforts to improve the economy largely failed, but he remained a simple man and was not considered to have lined his pockets at the expense of the common man.
Recoleta has become one of the most prestigious neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires and it seems strange to sit in one of the many beautiful cafes and restaurants and look out at the huge stone wall that surrounds the cemetery and see the sculptures and domes of the tombs. I guess the local porteños are used to the proximity and don’t think anything of it.