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Category: Symbols

061. ouroboros

Taken from a Greek phrase meaning “tail devourer,” this ancient symbol of a serpent eating its tail is perfect for a cemetery. Representing an eternal cycle of renewal, death is not seen as an end… it’s another beginning.

Ouroboros, Recoleta Cemetery

The serpent is often accompanied by a sphere—another symbol of eternity—or some other circular form. The ouroboros on front gate is difficult to make out from a distance:

Ouroboros, Recoleta Cemetery

Another beautiful example is on the Demarchi y Quiroga family vault. For an explanation of the moth, see this post:

Ouroboros, Recoleta Cemetery

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053. xp

The name of Christ in Greek is Christos (Χριστός) & the first two letters form a common Christian symbol. It’s everywhere in Recoleta Cemetery & is even incorporated into the entrance gate design… the XP hidden among decorative ivy.

XP, Recoleta Cemetery

XP, Recoleta Cemetery

XP, Recoleta Cemetery

XP, Recoleta Cemetery

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049. skull & crossbones

The most obvious & frequently used cemetery symbol is a skull & crossbones. Real skulls & bones were often piled at the entrance to a cemetery to leave no doubt about what was inside. Later adopted as a danger sign, an indication of poison & a pirate’s flag, it always reminds us of one thing—death.

What has always struck me as interesting is the rather comical nature of this symbol in Recoleta Cemetery. Most of the skulls have a cartoon-ish quality about them, showing a devilish grin or oddly round eye sockets:

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

It makes accurate depictions all the more spooky:

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

And although there is very little graffiti inside Recoleta Cemetery, some people get inspired by their surroundings:

Skull & crossbones, Recoleta Cemetery

Photos #3, 4, 5 & 7 by Marcelo. A later post with more photos can be found here.

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036. like a moth to a flame

Moths are perfect symbols for cemeteries… Just think about it. As a caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon, it appears to be dead. But after metamorphosis takes place, it is reborn as a winged creature that is attracted to light. The life cycle of a moth is therefore a wonderful allegory for a loved one who passes away, is transformed & later reborn… heading to the light:

Moth, Recoleta Cemetery

In spite of the comforting imagery involved, there are few moths in Recoleta Cemetery. The most obvious is in the center of the entrance gate. Some sources say that it is a bee, not a moth. Even I used to believe that until I could resolve the obvious differences in body structure. Coupled with other moth images I’ve found inside (one example above), there’s no doubt in my mind that it is *not* a bee.

Moth, Recoleta Cemetery

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025. owls

Symbolism is tricky to discuss since any number of different attributes can be assigned to a single image. Certainly Greeks used the owl as a symbol of wisdom, & it eventually came to represent the goddess Athena. According to “Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism & Iconography” by Douglas Keister, owls can also signify watchfulness & contemplative solitude. Common behavior of owls can be provide comfort when associated with a cemetery, assuring vigilance during a family’s darkest hour.

The first owl anyone sees as they enter Recoleta Cemetery is the large, mustard-colored one on the entrance gate. Be sure to look up:

Owl, Recoleta Cemetery

Others are less obvious & used for ornamentation:

Owl, Recoleta Cemetery

Owl, Recoleta Cemetery

If interested, check out the tombs of Ernesto Bunge or Manuel Alcorta for more images of owls.

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