Death and Memory in Buenos Aires

by Isabel Ortiz

The Recoleta Cemetery, even on the sunniest days, has its own particular climate. One of the most famous cemeteries in the world, the icy beauty of its ornate graves and statues gives it its own air, an air steeped with the whisperings of a different time, the voices of a lost epoch. Though the graveyard has always been reserved exclusively for the burial of those wealthy enough to buy their own family plots, it still remains one of the more important representations of the particularities and quirks of Argentine culture as a whole.

The graves in the Recoleta Cemetary are each connected with a story. (Ortiz/TYG)

Political figure Evita Peron, one of the notable exceptions to the cemetery’s class-based exclusivity, lies in a corner of the graveyard, personal notes and heartfelt scrawlings tied to the bars and fresh flowers always scattered by her ardent admirers. Her grave holds special importance to the Argentine people not just because of her significance as a political icon, but for the presence of the cadaver itself. In the famous “Battle of the Cadaver,” Evita’s embalmed body was stolen by military dictators after the overthrow of President Juan Peron to discourage the support of the Peronist political movement. For 16 years her cadaver remained missing, and the public continued to demand its return, rallying and protesting for her corpse. After various shifts in power and movements of the body, General Aramburu finally negotiated the cadaver’s return. Brutally maimed and disfigured upon its return, it was nonetheless Evita’s body and was placed in its rightful place in the Recolata cemetery.

This macabre story demonstrates the Argentine public’s eternal fascination with the dead and the importance placed on bodies. Indeed, few tombs in the Recoleta Cemetery place the body underground, rather, the coffin is placed in full view through windows on the tomb’s doors, and air conditioning is often installed to preserve the cadavers just so that passerby can make sure that they’re there, safe, and well ventilated.

The Recoleta Cemetary is one of the most famous in the world. (Ortiz/TYG)

Stories of other tombs in the cemetery are no less colorful. For example, Rufina Cambaceres, buried in 1902, suffered from catalepsies, which caused her to faint for long periods of time. While her parents were on vacation she suffered a particularly long fainting spell and was declared dead, buried shortly after in her family plot. Legend has it that upon returning, her parents to see that the coffin had been shifted in the tomb, and upon ordering it opened saw scratches all along the inside, proving she’d been buried alive. Since that episode, city law now states that one must have been dead for at least 24 hours before being buried in the cemetery.

And of course, one of the most beautiful tombs is one of Liliana Crociati, daughter of celebrity hairdresser Joseph Crociati, who did my grandmother’s hair in the 60s and 70s. During her honeymoon in Switzerland, Liliana was swept away by an avalanche while skiing. Her father commissioned a hauntingly beautiful bronze statue of her with her dog, frozen in eternal youth with her long hair cascading down her back and her hand placed mid-pat on the dog’s head.

But the country’s enduring fascination with death extends beyond cemetery walls. With its tragic past  centering mainly around the famous Desaparecidos or the Disappeared, in which an estimated 13,000 political protesters were kidnapped without warning, placed in concentration camps and killed during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, death remains a crucial political and social issue to this day, and the focus on cadavers, bodies, and burial is constantly in the public consciousness. Indeed, walking through Buenos Aires is sometimes not unlike strolling through a graveyard, for due to recent initiatives by social advocacy groups, tiles with names and dates now mark the places on each street where people were kidnapped, placed in trucks or airplanes never to be seen again. Opening the newspaper or turning on the news it’s common to hear about a new trial or recently uncovered evidence against military officials, and graffiti on the walls and sidewalks still call for the persecution of government officials or list the names of those still missing or the numbers of people unaccounted for.

Despite its heavy brick walls and iron gates keeping the dead firmly inside, the Recoleta Cemetery’s aura of death and memory extends beyond its walls, and the eternal fascination with the deceased remains a cornerstone of Argentine culture. In many ways, Buenos Aires’ dark political history keeps it caught between two worlds, a city where the dead are never forgotten and ghosts roam the streets.