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Monday, May 30, 2011

Buenos Aires Crypts Full Of Lively Tales


Buenos Aires crypts full of unusual sights, tales

La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires has named streets between the rows of aboveground vaults.
There's no telling whom you'll find in La Recoleta Cemetery.
Between the rows of 4,800 aboveground vaults and tombs lie the remains of past presidents and revolutionaries, poets and paupers, a few murderers here and some of their victims over there. From Evita, the most famous "resident-in-keeping" (buried four or five times, depending on whose history book you read), to Rufina, the young girl who mistakenly was buried alive.
Granted, going to a cemetery is not everyone's idea of a fun vacation, but La Recoleta in Buenos Aires is more like a museum than a burial ground and one of the top tourist attractions in Argentina.
But it didn't start out as the final resting ground for the rich and famous.
"This was Buenos Aires' first public cemetery back in 1732, when many poor people lived in the Recoleta area," our guide, Maisa, said. "But there was a yellow fever plague in the city in the 1870s and many wealthy residents moved here, where the epidemic had not spread.
"So the rich displaced the poor and the cemetery went upscale. Now you have to be somebody special to get in," she said with a smile. "In fact, Recoleta is the most expensive real estate in all of Argentina."
Truthfully, Recoleta is more like a little village than a cemetery, complete with street names on each corner. The entrance is adorned with tall Greek columns, and the architecture of the various tombs is a hodgepodge of neoclassical, neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and a few that are just over-the-top tacky.
The shapes of some of the larger mausoleums resemble temples, pyramids, castles and towers. But you can easily walk by the stately mausoleum containing the remains of Eva Peron. The name above the entrance simply reads "Familia Duarte," Evita's family name.
Evita's coffin lies beneath her other family members, two trap doors down from the main marble floor - figuratively in the basement, for security reasons.
But how she got there is a posthumous adventure tale that lasted 35 years and included burials in Milan, Madrid and several spots in Buenos Aires, including the presidential palace grounds.
Not far from the Duarte mausoleum is the tomb of Rufina Cambaceres, an 18-year-old girl buried alive in 1902 after she suffered a cataleptic attack and was presumed dead.
The official report is that she woke up screaming and clawing at her coffin. Security guards heard her screams, but before they could reach her it was too late; she had died of a heart attack.
Rufina's coffin today, No. 35, has a sculptured rose on top. On the corner of the tomb is a carving of a young girl who looks as if she is about to break into tears. And it brings tears to many tourists' eyes when they hear the story.
A couple of "streets" away is the tomb of David Alleno, No. 81, who was night watchman at the cemetery for almost 30 years. He saved up enough money to buy his own tomb and had a sculpture made of himself with his keys, broom and watering can.
Soon after the tomb and sculpture were completed, Alleno committed suicide.
Many residents of the Recoleta area swear that the ghosts of Rufina and Alleno can still be heard on some nights - she screaming and he jingling his keys.
Then there is the "silent" tomb of a man and wife who, rumor has it, did not speak to each other for the last 30 years of their marriage. He died before her, and she stated in her will that their statues were to face in opposite directions.
There is something else about La Recoleta Cemetery that makes it unique - you can rent a grave here, by the day.
According to our guide, it is possible to rent one of the mausoleums - with the permission of the surviving family members and at an agreed price - arranged by cemetery officials (who also take their cut).
By-the-day tenants then place their own family names on the tomb, and pose for photos with other family members and friends - all appropriately grieving.
Location, location, location.
Freelance writer Dominick A. Merle lives in Montreal. E-mail comments to travel@sfchronicle.com.


Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/05/27/TRGQ1JI0IK.DTL#ixzz1NrGvQZW8