The vibrant, eclectic city of Buenos Aires is known for just that; pulsing with energy, a city with a fluttering heartbeat that reveals itself through its pervasive graffiti murals, street markets, and, of course, the sensuality of its iconic tango dance. It seems almost ironic that such an energetic city lies on the bank of the Rio de la Plata, a murky, lazy inlet that separates Argentina from its northern neighbor, Uruguay. It seems even more ironic that within this electrifying capital city sits one of the world’s most famous cemeteries. The Recoleta Cemetery, nestled within the affluent neighborhood of Recoleta, conjures an image of a fully-fledged necropolis as opposed to the typical depictions of cemeteries being patches of land filled with gravestones, grass, flowers left by loved ones, and a solemn eeriness. This city built to honor the dead presents itself more as a posthumous pissing contest rather than simply a stoic place to mourn and reflect — and the results are, beyond a doubt, worth a visit.
I had the privilege to visit the cemetery during my trip to the Argentine capital, and the place has the ability to make an impression on you long before you step through its enormous stone gates. From a distance, the spires, domes, and crosses which permeate the imposing skyline of the necropolis make themselves visible as if to announce to you — if not warn — that you are not only entering a world in a different time, but a world not ruled by the living. You are but a passing guest, someone admiring the real estate of the deceased as one would in the rich part of town. Mind your manners, and watch your step.
There is, undoubtedly, a certain quality to the cemetery which sets it distinctly apart from the rest of the bustling city beyond its walls. When I first passed through its gates, I was struck by how oddly quiet it suddenly became; you would hardly ever expect that a place in Buenos Aires, the land of drivers with their infamous Italian sensibilities and citizens chattering away in public on speakerphone, could ever be so devoid of such noisiness.
One of the most distinguishable aspects of the Recoleta Cemetery is its noticeable lack of traditional gravestones, instead opting for ostentatious mausoleums beset by wrought iron, crucifixes, columns, stained glass, and towers — the works, essentially. Packed together within the restricted space of the graveyard, they seemingly spill over one another, battling for primacy, to be the most noticeable, to be the most grand, to honor its inhabitants better than the one next door. Needless to say, they do so with panache; on a mission to find my favorite mausoleum, I found myself needing to reassess with nearly every turn I took!
The longer you spend navigating the cobbled streets of the cemetery, the more you become acutely aware of the fact that it truly is a city in every sense of the word. As you wander through the grid-like blocks of this place and gaze at the rows of ornate mausoleums, you almost feel as though you could knock and step inside, greeted by the wealthy and prominent Argentine families who reside there. You can also sense that some parts of the cemetery are cleaner, better-maintained, and more elaborate than others. It’s true; a great number of the mausoleums have actually been desecrated, with their fragile glass and wrought iron doors kicked in, trash strewn inside, and weedy overgrowth seeping through their hallowed interiors. It was a disappointing sight to see, how these once-fabulous resting places could be mistreated and left to the wayside in such a manner, yet a sight all-too familiar as someone hailing from the fringes of the Rust Belt of the United States. Cities like Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and even parts of Chicago are host to once-beautiful Georgian and Victorian homes built by the corporate elites back when industry boomed. When industry stopped booming, the mansions were boarded up, fell apart, or were demolished. When family members stopped visiting the mausoleums of the Argentine elite, they were left to the mercy of the elements, litterers, and vandals. It’s always a tragedy when architecture suffers the same fate as its builders.
Despite this, you should not be deterred from visiting and paying your respects to this sacred place which provides a fascinating insight into Argentine culture. Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, is well-known for its conscious imitation of European customs, architecture, and society. This parallelism is more than obvious when strolling down BA’s tree-lined boulevards and admiring its baroque, Beaux-Arts, and neoclassical stylings, but it’s also present in a more subtle manner in Recoleta Cemetery. Perhaps it was just the architecture, the cobblestones, and the numerous statues, but something about the experience was so intrinsically European, it was uncanny. Celebrating the lives and legacies of those who dominated Argentina, and to an extent, South American society during a time in which Argentina was once one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world through an amalgamation of monuments and relics, reflects the dynamic Europe once exercised upon the rest of the world. There was a heyday followed by a period of great decline, yet to this day, both Europe and Argentina reflect on their history — at least, the majority of it — with great pride and affection. While Western Europe managed to recover from the strife of the 20th century, Argentina still struggles, stunted by economic troubles passed down for decades since the days of Juan Perón and his wife Eva Perón. If you ever needed evidence of Argentinians taking pride in their history, then look no further than Evita; her considerable presence in and impact on the country nearly sixty years after her death is truly incredible. Anointed the “Spirit of the Nation”, the Argentine reverence for her is clear from the passers by placing flowers at the rather understated Duarte (her maiden name) mausoleum in the Cemetery, her final resting place.
I mentioned that, to me, the Recoleta Cemetery embodied a certain love of the past, of the days in which Argentina rivalled the European countries it so looked up to, a gilded age which permitted the development of such an impressive resting place for polite society. However, after exploring this dynamic and writing this article, I’ve come to believe that it embodies not so much a regressive vision of and admiration for the past but a progressive and hopeful one for the future. A hope to one day rise again and follow the success story of its European godparents, to overcome its economic troubles and perhaps produce even more Argentinians worthy of a plot in Recoleta Cemetery. After all, this South American country has always been forward-looking, fueled by a powerful national pride and open-minded culture.
Who would have ever thought that a city of the dead could invigorate the living with such potency? It certainly wasn’t me; but after visiting Argentina and absorbing its culture, its history, and the ways of its people, both walking on the street and deep in an eternal slumber, one thing became apparent: while the living tango dance away in the milongas of Buenos Aires, the dead dance with them, their ethereal partners, providing a guiding foot from beyond.