“So, have you been to the cemetery yet?” One of our Buenos Aires contacts asked.
The question surprised me. I’m not used to thinking of cemeteries as big tourist draws, but La Recoleta was, according to some websites, a must-see. Sure enough, when we arrived at the magnificent entrance, we were among a big crowd positively clamoring to get in. There were a dozen tour buses outside the tall walls and eager holiday makers lining up for the security check.
Security check? You ask with furrowed brow. Yes, a serious one. A doughty female nearly tackled me when I failed to take my backpack off. The guards were checking even baby strollers and wheelchairs. As it happens, there is a reason for this. Last month, two enterprising anarchists disguised themselves as an elderly couple, the man pushing the woman in a wheelchair tricked-out with a homemade bomb. The timer failed and the resulting explosion killed the man and sent the woman into a coma. There was no damage done to graveyard property or bystanders.
It is possible that part of the reason for La Recoleta’s popularity is that it is the final resting place for Eva Peron, among other illustrious citizens. It would appear, for example, that Argentina has had about five hundred prime ministers and more than its fair share of naval officers.
According to online sources, other persons of interest include sexploitation-film director Armando Bό, literary sisters Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, musician Zenόn Rolόn and Silvina’s husband Adolfo Bioy Casares. We didn’t see any of these.
One celebrity tomb we did see was that of the boxer Luis Ángel Firpo (1894-1960), the ‘Wild Bull of the Pampas.’ A tour guide had gathered her flock around it and was talking about the famous painting Dempsey and Firpo (1924) by George Bellows, passing her cellphone around to show them a reproduction.
I’m not sure why, but Buenos Aires seems to have produced a large number of physicians and medical scientists. Bernardo Houssay (1887-1971), for example, discovered the role of the pituitary hormones in regulating blood sugar, and in 1947 became the first Nobel-prize winner from Latin America. Luis Agote (1868-1954) performed the first non-direct blood transfusion in the Americas. La Recoleta holds the remains of Luis Federico Leloir, who won a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1970 for discovering the function of sugar nucleotides in cell metabolism. Notable physicians also moldering within the cemetery walls include Eduardo Wilde , Cosme Argerich, Francisco Javier Muñiz and Guillermo Rawson, all of whom enjoyed fame in pursuits other than that of their profession. Muñiz, for example, was also a colonel, politician and naturalist. He died while treating patients in one of the four severe outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the city in the last half of the 19th century.
Even without knowing who is interred in the tombs, the cemetery is appealing for the quality and variety of designs of the mausoleums and statuary. Porteños of yore were so anxious to construct worthy memorials that they imported materials from Paris and Milan and employed famous sculptors such as Lola Mora, Luis Perlotti. The artistry and thought put into these final resting-places is staggering — there was clearly a competitive instinct at work.
Immediately upon entering, you are faced with a number that seems influenced by Egyptians, to the extent that the lettering looks like fake-hieroglyphs.
There is another Egyptianoid head.
One of the biggest and most eye-catching tombs is that of the estate-owning family features a virgin lighting a seven-branched candelabra that looks like a menorah. The effect is to make you wonder if there is some kind of provocative inter-religious jibe intended by the motto “O crux ave spes unica.”
Particularly striking for us were the mausoleums hewn out of black stone, which look as if they house some demon waiting for the right moment to rise up and commandeer your soul for apocalyptic purposes.
One working-class hero among all the doctors and admirals is David Alleno (1854-1910), cemetery caretaker who made it his life’s goal to own his own plot there. He finally saved enough even to commission Genovese sculptor to sculpt his image on a headstone, complete with the tools of his trade (keys, broom and watering can). Incidentally, Genoa was famous for producing funerary art, which is why cemeteries all over the world are crammed with Italian sculpture.
“Who’s that hippie?” John asked, pointing to a sculpture of a young woman patting a dog. Peering at the dates, we realized he wasn’t far wrong—it was a monument to one Liliana de Crociati de Szaszak (1944-1970) who died in 1970 at the age of 26, was killed in Innsbruck on 26 February when an avalanche struck her hotel. Her mother designed a Neo-Gothic tomb and commissioned Wieredovol Viladrich to create a sculpture of her daughter in her wedding dress. Liliana’s father contributed a poem written in Italian that stands on a plaque next to the tomb. When her dog Sabú died, the same sculptor added his likeness, placing it under her hand.
In general I prefer my cemeteries to be half-forgotten green spaces, but La Recoleta is definitely the best collection of ostentatious mausoleums I have seen and there is a refreshing party atmosphere there that makes you forget, temporarily, that death is usually associated with feelings of sadness and futility. After all, these people may be gone but they’re still the life of the party in this city.