Chacarita – death and theatre

Chacarita – death and theatre

I don’t know if I should be worried that my daughter decided on Day 2 of my stay that a visit to a cemetery would be a good plan……? But this was an outing to remember, a cemetery of cemeteries, an exposition on a grand scale of death and its aftermath.

Buenos Aires is, of course, famous for that other cemetery, the Recoleta, where Eva Peron is buried along with hundreds of other equally deserving souls who barely get a mention in the guidebooks. In the heart of the city, Recoleta is certainly quite a sight and has a tranquil, eerie beauty. But for size, variety, and a deeply disturbing touch of the macabre, La Chacarita is the place.

It opened in 1887 following an epidemic of yellow fever in 1871 that tore through the population leaving hundreds dead and the city’s capacity for digging graves completely overwhelmed – indeed many grave-diggers no doubt died too. Apparently La Recoleta refused to accept victims for burial there, having by that time become the exclusive real estate of the upper classes post mortem – class is vitally important in the death business here. And in any case more space was needed. The guidebooks say that La Chacarita was established as the ‘resting place’ for the yellow fever dead but I do wonder what happened to them in those 16 intervening years. Hmmm? So many questions…

Even before I abandoned the notion of an afterlife, it struck me as odd to use that word ‘resting’. But then eventually I grew up enough to understand the British notion of euphemism. A visit to La Chacarita offers a whole menu of ‘resting’ options with not a hint of euphemism; commitment to an afterlife is evident, if a little tarnished here and there with neglect, disrepair, or the demise of those who care.

There are four options for dealing with the dead and these exist in a hierarchy directly associated with the social hierarchy of the individual while alive. Probably no different from what happens in Blighty but on a much, much, more arresting scale. Since La Chacarita is, in a sense, pure theatre at least to an eye steeped in the restraint and forbearance the British bring to their dealings with death, a theatre analogy fits well. So, when you enter La Chacarita through its classic 19th century pink portico you are in the front stalls or maybe the dress circle – the expensive seats. What confronts you is a series of perfectly angled paths fanning out in several directions lined with wonderful trees and countless monumental mausoleums, or should that be mausolea? Either way, the ‘monumental’ should be understood in its several senses. If you were well-heeled from an important family you would have one of these. Some are as big as chapels – a small congregation could fit inside. Some are great monoliths of marble, complete enclosures of darkness; others are built like shrines with wrought iron gates protecting a tomb, often embellished with an effigy connoting something meaningful about the dear departed. No two are the same among all the hundreds lined up like so many detached dwellings for the dead. Whatever the design, most importantly the mausoleum needs to be big so as to stand out and count as a suitable tribute to the deceased amongst all the other grand mausolea.

The cheaper seats, let’s say the rear stalls or the rear circle are further away from the entrance. In another massive section of the cemetery you can just be buried, in a grave with a headstone or just a simple wooden cross. Actually, I suspect the little wooden crosses are provided for those who can’t afford a headstone. In any case, this is a familiar kind of scene for us gringos, a normal kind of endgame, modest and undramatic. Beyond the graves there’s a crematorium building. This was a surprise. Somehow I hadn’t expected this to be an option in a traditionally catholic country. Around the perimeter walls are the tell-tale tiny plaques housing the ashes.

So, that makes three main classifications so far. The fourth is where the macabre hits you right between the eyes. I suppose, irony of ironies given my choice of theatre analogy, this is the ‘gods’, the really cheap seats, severely restricted view, oh yes! In the centre of La Chacarita you come across a series of large brutalist concrete structures that signal the entrances to the Galerias. Now we are talking subterranean galleries here, like underground car parks, three-storeys deep with corridor after corridor emanating off a central space. Each corridor has square concrete slabs fixed along either side, each about the size of a mortuary drawer, six slabs from floor to ceiling like massive filing cabinets. Each corridor is about 100 metres long, lined either side with these each slab representing someone filed by number and sometimes by name, deep in a dark, damp place. A few are decorated with painful or searingly banal symbols from life denoting a child lost at a young age or a loved one mourned with plastic flowers. These are the vaults of the dead piled on top of one another. And the galerias are crumbling; the concrete is breaking away from the ceilings leaving holes where birds are nesting, the floor grimy with their detritus. The macabre becomes desolation.

And then, further and deeper into the galeria you come across some smaller slabs, tinier filing drawers hidden behind a wall. The tombs of children perhaps? But no, some carry the names and dates of people who died well into adulthood. Are these the poorest, the lowest rung of the hierarchy with the smallest claim on space crammed away out of sight? If you could have seats in the theatre pit, these are they. If you want a representation of purgatory on earth, if that’s your thing, look no further than the Galerias of La Chacarita.

There is grandeur here, melancholy and immense pathos; behind all the splendid mausoleums and the ghoulish galerias are people’s stories: thousands of individual lives, some long, some cruelly short, leaving their final mark on the world. And what an incredible space La Chacarita is with glory hard against horror – all the ambivalence about death and mortality is acted out in stone, marble, concrete, earth and ash. For the final act on the final night – what a performance!