Naturally, I expected to read a lot about old people who are buried in the cemetery. Nope. Our first stop was the mausoleum for a “Flower Child.”
That’s right. Hippy girl. I discover her around a corner at the Cemeteria de la Recoleta (La Recoleta Cemetery) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She wears a flowing gown of a 60s beatnik. Her long hair flows over shoulders-no bangs. She is slim and petite. Her admirers have slipped a fresh yellow daisy into her hand. Her dog loyally sits at her feet, positioned next to her body.
Lilana Crociati de Szaszak
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Lilana Crociati de Szaszak
Who is she? Why do her eyes seem to follow me as I walk up the crowded lane in the cemetery populated with the mansoleums? Her name is Liliana Crociati de Szaszak. She was only 26 years old when she died in an avalanche in Innsbruck, Austria on her honeymoon. Her grieving mother designed this NeoGothic memorial to her young life. Sculptor Wíeredovol Viladrich created the hauntingly beautiful green bronze sculpture of Liliana in her wedding dress.
Liliana’s dog Sabu also dies on the same day (according to legend). Apparently, the loyal canine must follow his mistress to heaven’s gates. Some speculate that the dog might be buried with his young mistress in her coffin. Viladrich sculpted the bronze statue of the dog. Liliana’s hand rests on the dog’s head. Her father (tu papa) memorializes her life with a poem—A Mi Fuglia—which he writes in Italian. It is written on a plaque which adorns the dais next to the tomb.
This story seduces me. My guide Jessica from BuenosTours tells the sad tale. This Buenos Aires tour company gives private city walking tours by English speakers. I buy the Full Day Walking Tour (7 hours).
City of the Dead
We are visiting Cementerio de la Recoleta, nicknamed “City of the Dead.” Most of the mausoleums I see date back to the 1800s to honor Buenos Aires’ rich families. Yet Liliana’s sculpture dates only as far back as the 1970s. She is part of the cemetery’s Mod Squad—a would-be Charlie’s Angel.
And so I meander through the sprawling cemetery. Built in 1822 on the orchard of the adjoining Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Buenos Aires, it is considered the city’s premiere attraction. The city tourism department calls it the “labyrinthine city of the dead.” There are 6,400 statues, sarcophagi, coffins and crypts in this cemetery. Some are crumbling. Others are handsomely maintained by their families.
A young (deceased) woman named Rufina Cambaceres beguiles me too. She tragically dies at a young age of 19. She was the daughter of a wealthy family. In the late 1800s, many poor souls were buried alive because doctors didn’t know how to evaluate a comatose patient. Rufina suffers this fate. She tried to escape upon waking in her coffin. A cemetery worker discovers her coffin has been moved. There are bruises on her face and hands. Deep scratches mark the lid of her coffin. Sadly she dies.
Local legend has it that her spirit now roams the dark lanes of the cemetery. Her tragic fate is honored by a beautiful sculpture of an angelic woman who stands alone from her family at her final resting place. The glorious Art Deco sculpture shows cherubs above her head.
Occasionally one of the cats which live in the cemetery will jump up to visit her statue. I slowly trail behind a grey tabby who is wandering up and down the rows of the cemetery. He finally finds his temporary “resting place” in the shade where he can nap during the ferociously hot day.
Basically an outdoor museum of the dead, Cementerio de la Recoleta is a hodgepodge of artistic styles—ranging from neo-Gothic and Art Deco to forest rock cave and Art Nouveau. Argentine Presidents, military officers, a Nobel Prize winner, wealthy scions and pillars of society all live in this City of Death.
But the most famous occupant residing in this elite neighborhood is Eva Perone or “Evita.” The young wife of Colonel Juan Perone is either adored or despised depending on the Argentine’s support of this revolutionary political party that ruled in the late 1940s. She is married at age 26. Argentina’s poor love Eva. She will champion their cause through Fundación Eva Perón, which provides clothes, food and housing for the destitute.
Frequently, she delivers her political speeches on the balcony of the Pink House. (This is the official work place of the President). Now Broadway lovers as well as tourists in love of Argentina’s most famous female leader flock to the cemetery to honor her memory.
Long Way Home
However, what I didn’t know is Eva’s body didn’t immediately get buried at the cemetery following her death in 1952. (She died of cancer at age 33.) They were married seven short years. It took decades before her body is discovered in Italy and transported back to Argentina. This cemetery becomes the final resting place for Eva’s remains.
Her casket is housed in an understated mausoleum with a simple plaque listing Eva Perone. Her admirers leave gifts of flowers and handwritten notes that are festooned on a grate. On this quiet Wednesday afternoon, 12 people visit her grave. They want to pose next to Eva’s plaque.
In Andrew Weber Lloyd’s musical Evita, the heroine sings “Don’t cry for me Argentina.” The is one of her final speeches to the adoring crowds before her illness requires her to retire from public life. Somehow it seems appropriate that Evita’s simple grave can now draw millions to honor her each year.
Admission is free since Recoleta is still a functioning cemetery that welcomes new neighbors.
The cemetery comprises over 6,400 statues, sarcophagi, coffins and crypts who commemorate some of Argentina’s most celebrated sons and daughters.
The gates close promptly at 6 pm so don’t expect to hobnob with Buenos Aires’ revered dead at night. And you definitely want to leave time to tango in Bueno Aires.