Despite having being in Santiago for more than one year now, there is always more I want to discover and experience in this city. Yesterday, I finally visited a site I have long wanted to explore…the cemetery known as “Cementerio General“.
Now you may be wondering why on earth someone would want to visit a cemetery if not to lay flowers on the grave of a loved one. But in actual fact, cemeteries can offer amazing and very interesting insights into the history of a country. This is certainly the case with the Cementerio General because basically Chile´s entire political history can be discovered there. The unique thing about this cemetery is that ALL of Chile´s presidents since independence from Spain 200 years ago are buried here, with the exception of the founding President – Bernardo O´Higgins who is buried in front of the Government Palace in the city centre and one other president who wanted to be buried in his home city of La Serena. I don´t think there are many countries in the world that can say their entire history is buried in one place.
Walking (or in our case cycling) down the tree lined avenues of the cemetery, lined with large and often incredibly elaborate family tombs adorned with marble or stone sculptures, you can´t help but feel at peace. But this form of a cemetery is rather foreign to me since such elaborate tombs and crypts don´t really exist in cemeteries in South Africa. Such a layout and design seems to be an old European tradition since I have seen similar cemeteries in Paris and also in Recoleta in Buenos Aires. However, I must say that the cemetery here in Santiago feels alot less cold and creepy than those in Europe.
The website for the cemetery describes walking the paths of the cemetery as “a walk leading us to the eternal abodes of the characters to whom we owe what we are”. For me, one of the most poignant tombs to visit in order to take a look at Chile´s recent history was that of Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist president who was overthrown by a military coup in September 1973 which led to 17 years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
Just prior to the capture of La Moneda (the government palace), Allende made a final speech on radio to the people of Chile, with the gunfire and explosions of the siege audible in the background. At his tomb there is a marble plaque with his final words engraved…”Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
Recently President Allende has been in the news again as there has always been some doubt as to how he died on the day of the coup. the official story was that he committed suicide in the Government Palace whilst it was being bombed rather than being taken prisoner by the military. But many of his supporters believed that he was killed in the siege. So in order to determine the truth once and for all, a few months ago they exhumed his body and a forensic examination was done to determine the cause of death. A few weeks ago the official report was released stating that he had in fact committed suicide.
The cemetery is divided into distinct areas – the old area with giant tombs and elaborate carvings and the newer area with rows of crosses and walls of smaller tombs. But not only is the graveyard divided into old and new, there is also a sharp contrast between rich and poor…as can be seen by the following images.
This was a huge tomb that looks more like an Aztec temple than anything else…
But even amongst the oldest and fanciest tombs, there were a few hints of modernity, like this tomb decorated by large sheets of rusted metal and silhouettes of the person´s face (Gladys, a member of the Communist Party who died in 2005) and the communist image of the hammer and sickle.
The football craziness of Chileans is even evident in death…in the poorer sector along with all the other decorations and flowers, many graves were decorated with the flags or shirts of the main footballs teams from the national league. Colo Colo is the most successful team in Chile and fanatics even support them from the grave.
In the poorer sector of the cemetery, there was one area with really old and rusted crosses. Apparently, in this area many of the people who were killed after the coup and during the years under dictatorship were buried in unmarked graves. Most of the people have since been exhumed and buried properly by their families, but a few of the crosses still say NN, meaning No Name.
Before going to the cemetery I decided to look at their website to find out more about the history of the cemetery and the people buried there. I was really surprised to find the site incredibly informative and even more surprised to see a sidebar with 24 different flags indicating the languages you could view the site in. But the biggest surprise was the South African flag I saw indicating Afrikaans. Since I have forgotten most of my Afrikaans these days I stuck to the spanish and english versions, although I think the english was translated using google or something and was hardly understandable in some parts.
Based on the website I thought the actual cemetery would cater to tourists in some way, however when we asked if there was a map or something to help us locate the tombs we wanted to see, we were told that they only have a tourism person from Monday to Friday. Go figure as to why they think tourists don´t visit on weekends. So besides being able to see the obvious tombs of the presidents I didn´t get to those of some of the great, non-political influences in Chile such as Violeta Parra and Victor Jara (both amazing folk musicians). I suppose this just means I will have to hop on my bike some other weekend and go exploring again…this time armed with a printout of the map…
“Es mas deseable una hermosa muerte que una larga vida” – “It is more desireable to have a beautiful death than a long life”. (This was a quote engraved on one of the walls of smaller tombs…I´m not too sure what they are trying to say though…)