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.
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.
Visitors to Recoleta Cemetery often ask questions at each end of the spectrum. Who was the firstperson buried there? Early records list two on opening day: Juan Benito (a child of freed slaves) & María Dolores Maciel. Who was the last? Let’s check the newspapers! How much does the most expensive mausoleum cost? No way to know for certain since each is private property. What is the oldest tomb still standing? Hmmmm… that’s tricky. Here’s our best guess.
Recoleta Cemetery looked very different from its current appearance when it first opened in 1822. As the cemetery grew in status, its layout changed from grassy plots with simple tombstones to one of ornate mausoleums & vaults. Photos from the Witcomb Collection (below) show this process in progress around 1890, & a few ordinary tombstones even survive today.
But with resale & modifications occuring over almost 200 years, few records are kept about the constructions on each plot. After all, each is private property so the cemetery has no obligation to record that kind of information. Many sources cite Remedios de Escalada —wife of founding father General José de San Martín— as having the oldest remaining plot since she passed away in 1823. However, a little exploration reveals another grave hidden in a corner not far from the entrance gate:
Dª Romana Josefa López de Anchorena y sus cuatros nietas parbulas. Romana. Nicolasa. Estanislana. y Martina Anchorena. Falleció la primera de 30 de octubre de 1822. D.P.H.M.N.A.
The Anchorena family dates back to Argentina’s days under Spanish rule. Born in Pamplona, Juan Esteban de Anchorena arrived in Buenos Aires in 1768. He married Romana Josefa de Anaya, moved up in social rank & began buying land. By the early 20th century, the Anchorena name became synonymous with big money & power, coining a popular phrase: “wealthier than an Anchorena.” They even managed to marry into European royalty, but it all started with Romana Josefa who was buried here in 1822… the same year Recoleta Cemetery opened.
While a few other relatives are buried along with Romana Josefa, the Anchorenas never had a single, dedicated family mausoleum. Other Anchorena descendants can be found scattered throughout Recoleta Cemetery, but the honor of oldest mausoleum goes to the Bustillo family (1823).
That’s our best guess for now… until other evidence comes along!
As of today, Recoleta Cemetery —as well as the other two burial grounds in Buenos Aires— will reopen… but only for their intended purpose: funerals or visiting deceased relatives. The above announcement lists the following conditions:
Hours are Monday to Friday (including holidays) from 08:00 to 17:00.
Only two people per family will be allowed to enter.
Length of stay: 1 hour maximum.
Tourism or recreational visits are not allowed.
For burials, five people + a religious minister are able to enter together.
Basically if you don’t have business inside Recoleta Cemetery, there’s still no option to enter. Staff confirmed that regular cleaning & maintenance has taken place since closure on 13 Mar 2020, but workers have been the only ones permitted inside. While it remains unclear how these new regulations will be enforced, please refrain from tourism until further notice. Gracias!
President Bernardino Rivadavia formed the Sociedad de Beneficencia in 1823 to perform charity work that had previously been the sole responsibility of the Catholic church. In spite of a rough start, by the beginning of the 20th century the organization became synonymous with the grand dames of Buenos Aires high society. It gave food & shelter to orphans, provided a role model for wayward kids, ran hospitals, & taught boys & girls “gender-based” work skills. Was this child labor? Sure. Did the elite maintain power & influence through this organization? Definitely. As a highly-visible symbol of upper class control, Perón replaced their work with the Fundación Eva Perón… & the rest is history.
José María Pizarro y Monje had substantial real estate holdings dating from the early 1800s. As part of the landed Argentine elite, his only daughter —Cornelia Pizarro— worked endlessly with the Sociedad de Beneficencia. She developed a friendship with President Bartolomé Mitre & became known for organizing raffles to raise funds for charity.
Cornelia passed away without getting married & donated her entire fortune (500,000 pesos or well over USD 1 million in today’s currency) to found an institute for orphan girls over the age of 14. Opened in 1925 & named after her father, children were taught domestic service & girls often sold their textiles to hospitals or to the general public. They even provided employment for women who had grown up in the institute but could not find work. The organization continues to provide service to the city today.
Straddling the east wall & tucked away near a corner, the simple tomb of Brigadier General Juan Martín de Pueyrredón receives few visitors. One of the founding fathers of Argentina, his memorial seems almost low-key compared to some of his contemporaries.
Born in 1777 in Buenos Aires, his father passed away when he was only 14 years old. That event would change his life. Sent at the age of 18 to Cádiz, Pueyrredón took over his father’s export business & continued increasing the family’s fortune. He also took the opportunity to travel in Europe before returning to Argentina in 1805. He’d married his cousin two years earlier, but she passed away (also in 1805) due to complications from a miscarriage. Influential & well-received back home, Pueyrredón first tried to act as a liaison when the British invaded Argentina the following year. But he soon decided to fight & joined local forces that would defeat the British.
Although sent to Spain as a regional representative, Pueyrredón returned just in time to join the 1810 revolution that began his homeland’s struggle for independence. He was not a successful soldier in the following years but was named to replace Juan José Paso in the First Triumvirate —a prototype executive branch in the newly-formed United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Alongside San Martín, Pueyrredón organized army & naval forces against the Spanish.
In 1815, Pueyrredón returned to Buenos Aires to marry his second cousin… he was 39 while she was only 14. Times have certainly changed! The following year he was elected as Supreme Director for the national government at a constitutional congress. Pueyrredón founded the national bank & continued to send funds & supplies to San Martín as troops marched toward Perú.
Unfortunately, those early years of independence proved difficult to survive. Discontent brewed within the new government & in 1819, Pueyrredón was forced to resign & eventually went to Montevideo in exile. The political situation changed constantly & he was allowed to return to Buenos Aires two years later. In 1823, his wife gave birth to a boy —Prilidiano— and lived a comfortable life on her family estate in San Isidro. In a brief return to politics, he tried to negotiate an agreement between Juan Manuel de Rosas & Juan Lavalle but to no avail. Leaving for exile in Europe once again, Pueyrredón returned to Buenos Aires in 1849 & passed away a few months later. He left behind a long legacy of public service & commitment to Argentina.
In spite of such a modest tomb, commemoration of Pueyrredón can be found throughout Buenos Aires: his statue decorates Plaza Chile in Palermo (above), a major north-south avenue (ending just behind the cemetery) connects Recoleta with the Once train station, & a small neighborhood in the western part of the city was named after him in 1907.