The list of occupants of Recoleta Cemetery reads like a Who’s Who of Argentine history & society. The elite, an aspiring middle class, friends, enemies & those who contributed to the general welfare of Argentina all share space in a miniature city of mausoleums & monuments.
During a visit, you’ll stroll past Presidents & politicians (some naughty, some nice), Nobel Prize winners, literary greats, entertainers, scientists, military leaders, sports figures & even some who died tragically. The cemetery’s most famous resident, Eva María Duarte de Perón —simply Evita to her devotées— even had a bizarre post-mortem journey before finally resting in peace in Recoleta.
How does a simple burial place transform into a national monument? Oscar Andrés de Masi answers this question by examining the archives & internal debates of the first organization created to watch over Argentina’s complicated legacy.
Preservation & maintenance of historical/cultural heritage became a major concern for many countries at the beginning of the 20th century. National commissions around the world formed in order to control, recover & spread the word about those places which helped form the unique identity of each country. Argentina established the Comisión Nacional de Museos y Lugares Históricos in 1938 to manage this huge undertaking.
Fully operational by 1940, funerary heritage had yet to become part of the broader definition of national heritage. At first only founding fathers & their families were deemed worthy of such commemoration, but questions soon began to emerge. What if the person’s remains had been moved after burial? Does the empty tomb still constitute national heritage? Who has jurisdiction over those remains: family descendants or the nation?
Eventually the nation claimed all rights, & cenotaphs were also considered patrimony. The definition of who to include grew as well, as later decades added other figures who had left a mark on Argentine society. Early years of the CNMLH also revived the idea of building a National Pantheon (1834 design by Italian architect Carlo Zucchi pictured below), but in the end Recoleta Cemetery took over that function.
The most valuable part of the book contains photographs of 35 tombs —the majority in Recoleta Cemetery— taken by the Hans Mann photo studio in 1944. Commissioned for use in a book to be published by the CNMLH, these pictures came to light in 2010 during a reorganization of the Commission’s photo archive:
Overall book design could be better, but one criticism above all: a list of all declared funeral heritage sites is in alphabetical order… by first name or by title. This methodology makes the list difficult for a reader to use. See the sample page below where titles like canónigo, capitan or coronel come first. Our list for Recoleta Cemetery is organized by year of decree + last name.
Many thanks to Marcelo for finding this book published in 2012 & shipping it twice to Spain!
Filmed almost exclusively in Argentina, Highlander 2might be the worst movie of all time. The general public wasn’t ready for a climate-disaster science fiction film in the 1990s, nor did they approve of making Immortals from the first movie into aliens. Sets resemble copies of Ridley Scott productions (think Alien or Blade Runner) & the special effects… well, they aren’t that special. Recoleta Cemetery gets a cameo though, so we’ll have to sit through a few minutes of footage.
At 1:02 in the director’s cut, Connor MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) visits the grave of his wife, Brenda, who died from solar radiation exposure. No ozone layer = millions of deaths. A flashback scene then shows Connor at Brenda’s bedside in a makeshift hospital. Just before she dies, Brenda makes Connor promise to do something to end humanity’s suffering. End of flashback. As Connor talks to Brenda’s grave, General Katana (played by Michael Ironside) appears & congratulates Connor for talking to the dead.
After kissing a statue of an angel on the tomb of Virgilio M. Tedín, Connor & Katana do a bit of verbal sparring that does not turn into a fight… because their “golden rule” is not to fight on holy ground. On cue, a priest followed by a funeral procession interrupts their conversation & drives the point home:
Katana’s advice to Connor before disappearing is: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If you don’t take it out & use it, it’s going to rust.” His sword, that is. Connor then walks off screen.
Filmed in the back section of the cemetery, set designers came up with an interesting way to hide adjacent apartment buildings: tarps covered with extra plant life. Bizarre but effective. They’ve added quite a bit of greenery to the surrounding tombs as well to provide a bit of atmosphere. Otherwise we’d see windows & endless air conditioning units:
Brenda’s tomb —which Katana steps on & damages— is a prop set in front of the Art Deco grave of Rufino de Elizalde. Location scouts did a good job in selecting this spot… Art Deco fits in the movie’s aesthetic, & this is one of the few spots in the cemetery that has perspective. The white sculpture at the very end on the right belongs to Juan Alberto Lartigau.
Some blame the economic situation of Argentina in the early 1990s for the film’s failure. Investors took creative control of the film to save money, introduced random changes & broke continuity with the previous movie’s story. Whatever the reason, at least we have one more moment of time in Recoleta Cemetery captured on film forever.
Born in 1806 in Buenos Aires, Hilario Lagos had a life-long military career & participated in most major conflicts during Argentina’s formative years. He grew up just as the nation gained independence from Spain, & the constant conflict of that time drew him to the army. Lagos enlisted just before his 18th birthday & quickly rose in the ranks.
Local skirmishes against indigenous tribes prepared Lagos for his first international conflict. Brazil had declared independence from Portugal in 1822 & then tried to extend their control all the way down to the Río de la Plata… incorporating territory that formed part of Argentina. Losing the war, Brazil’s failure created a new nation: Uruguay.
Lagos gained more military experience as he joined the private army of Juan Manuel de Rosas & continued to push back the native frontier. All these previous battles proved invaluable during Argentina’s internal conflict for the role Buenos Aires would play in national politics: economic capital or part of a confederation? The future of the country hung in the balance with Lagos caught in the middle.
He stayed true to Rosas until the bitter end, but after defeat Lagos switched sides in an attempt to bring about a more peaceful resolution. Buenos Aires did not take kindly to Lagos, whatever side he chose… after Buenos Aires became capital & the idea of confederation was discarded, they confiscated all the territory Lagos owned & forced him to live away from the city in exile. In 1857 Lagos was offered a command position to fight indigenous tribes yet again, but he refused. He passed away & was buried in Recoleta in 1860. Although a central figure in Argentina’s history, the legacy of Lagos is overshadowed by many others. However, many of his descendants also joined the military & even became high-ranking officers, carrying on a family tradition of national service.
Drone photos of Recoleta Cemetery are nothing new, but improved technology has made large-scale images possible with an amazing degree of detail. Thomas Khazki works as a photojournalist for Infobae in Buenos Aires & has taken a series of drone images of the city… an amazing perspective we don’t often see.