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Category: In the press

555. covid-19 closure

As the coronavirus makes its way to Argentina, staff at Recoleta Cemetery are taking preventative measures to ensure everyone’s health & safety. As of 13 Mar 2020, the cemetery is CLOSED until further notice to all tourists. Below are two official communiques from Recoleta Cemetery:

We’ll let you know when they reopen, but in the meantime feel free to take a virtual visit by scanning through over 550 posts on this blog. More important: stay healthy & respect recommendations by health care officials. Recoleta Cemetery will be waiting for you when this health emergency ends!

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553. still recommended

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Lonely Planet, 2018, 11th edition

Marcelo & I don’t live in countries where Lonely Planet guidebooks in English are readily available, so it’s always nice to pop into a real bookstore —while they still exist!— to see if our cemetery PDF guide is still recommended. Happy to find good news. The photo above comes from the latest edition (11th, published 2018) of LP’s Argentina guidebook.

Thanks for the continuing support!

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550. familia de saavedra lamas

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Saavedra Lamas

Born in Buenos Aires in 1878, Carlos Saavedra Lamas had family roots dating back to the earliest days of Argentina. As great-grandson of founding father Cornelio de Saavedra, perhaps Carlos seemed destined for success. But he did something no one ever expected… Saavedra Lamas became the first Argentine to receive a Nobel Prize.

His career path began as a lawyer & teacher, & in 1908 Saavedra Lamas started in politics as representative for the city of Buenos Aires in Congress. During the presidency of Victorino de la Plaza, he became the Minister of Justice & Public Instruction. Remember that the Victorino de la Plaza administration had to implement universal suffrage when President Roque Sáenz Peña died just after the law had been passed. One other interesting connection: Saavedra Lamas married Rosa, the daughter of Roque Sáenz Peña. But it was his next big government position that would send him into the international spotlight.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Saavedra Lamas

As Minister of Foreign Relations during the military-run Agustín P. Justo administration (1932-38), Saavedra Lamas negotiated peace between Paraguay & Bolivia during the Chaco War. At a nexus between four countries, the Chaco region had long been an area of contention. Argentina had most of the power, treating Paraguay as a feudal trade partner. Brazil feared the dominance of Argentina in South America, & Bolivia yearned for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean in order to avoid being landlocked by other nations. Recently discovered oil also played a role in the conflict. Saavedra Lamas persevered to find a peaceful resolution to the war by addressing the League of Nations & at the same time prevented the USA from intervening in what it saw as a “local,” hemispherical dispute.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Saavedra Lamas

During the Chaco War, Saavedra Lamas drew up a Treaty of Non-agression & Conciliation (referred to in Spanish as the Pacto Antibélico) which stated that signatories would not recognize any territorial change in the entire hemisphere brought about by an act of war. By 1935, all nations in North & South America —with the exception of Bolivia & Costa Rica— had signed the peace agreement. What an amazing accomplishment in a decade full of nascent dictatorships & warmongering! Six European countries, including Spain, also ratified the treaty. As of 1948, another treaty superseded that of Saavedra Lamas but many nations still recognize the original. In 1936, Saavedra Lamas received the Nobel Prize for Peace, becoming the first Argentine to receive the honor. He passed away in 1959 & was buried with honors in Recoleta Cemetery.

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Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Saavedra Lamas, Nobel Peace Prize, medal

A bitter afternote: The actual medal given to Saavedra Lamas disappeared after his death, then turned up in 1993 in a pawn shop. It passed through several private collectors until being auctioned in March 2014 in Baltimore. A representative in Argentina’s Congress proposed buying it back… but as the second-only Nobel Peace Prize medal ever up for sale, it fetched an amazing price: $1,116,250 USD! Supposedly a private Asian collector now has a symbol of Argentina’s once prominent role in international peacemaking.

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538. bombs & anarchists

On 14 Nov 2018 around 17:15—less than an hour before closing time—a bomb went off inside Recoleta Cemetery. Marcelo immediately sent me a message via WhatsApp & within seconds I watched the story unfold on TN’s live YouTube broadcast from my living room in Spain:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, TN Vivo

The explosion occurred in the far left corner of the cemetery at the tomb of Ramón Falcón, & initial reports mentioned one of five home-made pipe bombs exploding… severely injuring one woman who was being attended by an EMT crew onsite. Forensic police arrived to investigate the scene as well as assess any potential threat from unexploded devices. Later that day, the following photos were released via the national news agency, Télam:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, bombing, Ramón Falcón, Télam

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, bombing, Ramón Falcón, Télam

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, bombing, Ramón Falcón, Télam

The story wasn’t difficult to put together. The injured woman, 34-year old Anahí Esperanza Salcedo, had been responsible for the bombing & suffered facial damage as well as the loss of three fingers when the device exploded early… apparently while taking a selfie.

Salcedo entered the cemetery with Hugo Alberto Rodríguez, both disguised with wigs & sunglasses. They identify as anarchists & wanted to destroy the tomb of Falcón, who had been assassinated by an anarchist 109 years ago. In the end, the tomb survived while Salcedo remains in critical condition.

Police officials consider this crime linked to another pipe bomb thrown into the front patio of the home of judge Claudio Bonadio later that same day. Bonadio is currently investigating charges of bribery & money laundering involving members of the previous government, including former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The following day federal police raided the anarchists’ base of operations in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Cristóbal & arrested 10 individuals after finding material used to make pipe bombs.

Marcelo went to Recoleta Cemetery to assess the situation two days after the bombing occurred. The first change he noticed is that bags are now being inspected at the entrance gate. While we aren’t sure if this checkpoint will become permanent, be prepared to have your belongings searched until further notice. Marcelo also confirmed the correct time of the bombing, misreported in local media as around 18:00… impossible since the cemetery promptly closes at that time every day. Forensic police were still working the scene during his visit:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, entrance gate, Marcelo Metayer

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Marcelo Metayer

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Marcelo Metayer

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Marcelo Metayer

Marcelo also heard people ask in several different languages where the explosion had taken place. Word had quickly spread about the incident. He’ll return next week for an update, so stay tuned! In the meantime, tombs that are located inside the orange dashed line on the map below cannot be visited. This corresponds to locations numbered 41 to 44 in the PDF guide:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, affected section from bombing

During 19 years of visiting & documenting Recoleta Cemetery, neither Marcelo nor I ever imagined this kind of violence taking place inside. Some speculate that it may be an attempt to disrupt an otherwise calm city preceding the G-20 summit. Whatever the reason, one lesson that Recoleta Cemetery demonstrates through almost 200 years of history is that violence is never the means to an end. And you can’t kill someone twice!

Update (22 Nov 2018): Apparently all cemeteries in Buenos Aires—Recoleta, Chacarita & Flores—will not allow visitors to enter with bags or backpacks, & handbags will be inspected by security. Photo courtesy of Susana Gesualdi:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Susana Gesualdi, notice

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529. una arquitectura para la muerte

Tapa, Una Arquitectura para la Muerte, 1993

References to Recoleta Cemetery appear in some unexpected places, but as one of the most recognized & visited spots in Buenos Aires I’ve always been surprised at the lack of academic research about its development. Not long ago, I obtained a copy of a book titled “Una Arquitectura para la Muerte” (An Architecture for Death) published in Spain after a 1991 conference about contemporary cemeteries around the world. This large body of work compiles all the research from that conference & first became available two years later in 1993.

Recoleta Cemetery got some much-deserved space with two separate articles. The first was written by team of authors—María Rosa Cicciari, Marcelo Huernos, Rubén Lasso & Carla Wainsztok—who worked in conjunction with the Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. I’m surprised that I never heard of them since I often went to find info at the Instituto Histórico. Anyway, La muerte en el imaginario social en Buenos Aires does its best to favor the less exclusive Chacarita Cemetery but also presents quite a few interesting facts about Recoleta Cemetery that I’ve had trouble confirming exact dates or never knew…

  • Funeral carriages often took a route down Calle Florida to Recoleta Cemetery so everyone could participate in mourning along the most famous street in Buenos Aires.
  • Bodies were wrapped in sheets due to a lack of caskets during the yellow fever epidemic that gave birth to Chacarita Cemetery.
  • The Estación Fúnebre Bermejo existed at the intersection of Calle Ecuador (formerly named Bermejo) & Avenida Corrientes to handle the transfer of the deceased by train to Chacarita, complete with offices & rooms for autopsies.
  • A trolley line for Recoleta Cemetery began service in 1870, prior to the Lacroze line to Chacarita which commenced operation in 1888.
  • The first cremation in Buenos Aires took place due to a cholera epidemic & became a standardized procedure in 1886.
  • A 1923 city ordinance prohibited a public funeral service in Recoleta Cemetery with a later transfer of the deceased to another burial location. Evidently the social status of being buried in Recoleta Cemetery generated a few odd practices like this one.
  • Home wakes continued until the early 20th century, like that of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. They state that funeral homes didn’t really catch on until 1960!

Familia Leloir, architectural diagrams

The second article—Arquitectura funeraria de Buenos Aires, La Recoleta by María Beatriz Arévalo & María del Carmen Magaz—starts with a lengthy history of cemeteries in Spanish territories & the creation of Recoleta Cemetery. The authors then group funeral architecture into trends based either on nationality (English, Italian & French) or by period (Art Nouveau, for example). AfterLife has covered most every topic discussed in the article, but one quote stood out for me… the basis for their research stemmed from a 1989 art history conference that outlined the conditions for every modern cemetery:

Por un lado pasa a ser una reducción simbólica de la ciudad, en segundo término es una galería donde la comunidad conserva la memoria de sus grandes hombres y, por último, es un ámbito donde desarrollar el arte.

On one hand it should be a symbolic reduction of the city, in second place a gallery space where the community preserves the memory of its great men and, lastly, a place for art to develop.

That happens to be the perfect response when anyone asks themselves: why would I visit a cemetery?

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528. vanity fair, 23 jan 2018

Vanity Fair, holiday 2017/2018

Returning to Buenos Aires after decades away, British novelist & biographer Nicholas Shakespeare recently described his observations about Recoleta Cemetery for Vanity Fair:

Directly opposite La Biela is the Recoleta cemetery, where Borges hoped to be laid alongside his parents and grandparents; in fact, he is buried in Geneva—like Graham Greene, whose favourite among his own novels, The Honorary Consul, is set in the Argentina of those years. Rather as Buenos Aires parodies its European origins—flaunting a Harrods, a Claridge’s, a Hurlingham Club and an ugly clock tower modelled on Big Ben—so is Recoleta, in V.S. Naipaul’s words, “a mimic town”.

A beautiful, wounded nation seeking its identity in plagiarized dreams. That is how a walk through Recoleta’s extravagant cemetery makes me think of Argentina. Compressed into marble mausoleums the size of houses are the families who moulded and misshaped the country. Incontestably the best known is Eva Perón, the Generalissimo’s embalmed first wife, whose cult continues to flourish 65 years after her death. Poking from a grille stuffed with roses, a fresh handwritten note from the sharply diminished “Armed Forces” commends “Evita” for “standing up for social rights”.

Embellished with iron roses, a grey bunker houses Argentina’s quintessential dictator, General Manuel de Rosas—“the implacable butcher”, as Borges called him—who died in exile in Southampton in 1877. A journey I never made was with Bruce Chatwin to the dairy farm where Rosas sold milk for two pence a quart, and to see his grave. Chatwin died in the same year, 1989, that Rosas’s remains were repatriated with enormous fanfare to the Recoleta. A riderless horse draped with Rosas’s symbolic red poncho accompanied the casket, alleged by critics to contain the bones of a Blitz-blasted cow. Also in the procession were 5,000 gauchos and members of the security services dressed as members of the Mazorca, Rosas’s dreaded secret police—nicknamed the colorados, after their ponchos—although not many of the estimated two million observers lining the streets knew this. The Mazorca dumped the corpses of their victims over the walls of the Recoleta—as, in copycat style, did Isabelita’s paramilitary successors, the Ford Falcon-driving Triple A.

The authors of this blog are unaware of any dumping of corpses in Recoleta Cemetery by the last military dictatorship. We’ve documented how Mario Firmenich & the Montoneros broke inside to steal the corpse of Pedro Aramburu, but even they left his abandoned casket outside the walls. A visit by Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff in 1863 mentions dumping bodies into a “dreadful hole” by the Mazorca… another claim we have been unable to confirm in Argentine sources. The idea likely comes from Jason Wilson’s compendium of literary references (Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary Companion, page 104), but we’ve been unable to confirm any such act.

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