We had to climb up a few stairs, Recoleta stood on an elevated block, like a platform. At first, I thought this was out of reverence, to raise it from the level of all the other city blocks around it; to set it apart as something that contained the mortal remains of the city’s former inhabitants, then I realized that it was probably just the accumulation of graves and material that had raised the area up, like the churchyards in England rising up around the church like leavened dough.
From the street, the Asuncion Recoleta looked more like a New Orleans graveyard than its Argentine counterpart. What could be seen over the concrete wall was nothing like the flights of angels and weeping maidens the guard and adorn the resting places of the Porteño elite. There was no solemnity. Even in the sun,the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, manages to look grey and somber. It induces reflection even in the casual tourist only there to find Evita’s grave between shoe store visits. What we were looking at as we approached the cemetery was an amalgamation of different tastes and designs, all of which were cruelly useless to the dead. The canary-yellow vault and the stained glass crucifix all the chiseled ‘cariñoso’s and the plastic flowers and ribbons were all too weak to form a sufficient façade to cover the reality of the aftermath of death; not what happens when the body dies, but when the very memory of that body dies as well.
At the entryway there were a few tired-looking people reclining under the shade of the trees selling small, withered bunches of flowers. On entering the cemetery, I found it to be bigger than I had imagined, probably near the size of its counterpart in Buenos Aires. There were even signs, made to resemble street signs that marked the lanes that led between the crypts. These were simply labeled Calle ‘A,’ ‘B,’ etc. if horizontal or Avenida ‘A,’’B’ etc. if vertical. The central Avenida, was wide and paved with flag stones. It led to the middle of the cemetery where a large yellow-ish crypt halted its progress.
This main thoroughfare was very nice. The crypts were in good repair on either side, the flags were even and there were a few trees growing among the crucifixes. We walked a little ways down this path, looked at some of the regal graves, such as that of Eliza Lynch’s daughter and then turned on to one of the calles.
The change wasn’t immediate, we walked for a long way among modest crypts, some of them made a little decrepit by time, but the corpses inside seemed to be in peaceful repose. We came to one in which a few errant bones were visible on the floor of the crypt. Somehow, they had been shaken loose, probably when the coffin had been moved for some reason, or perhaps it wasn’t clear to which coffin the bones belonged. We took in the momento mori . Each of us thinking about the bones in our own bodies and how some day they would be divested of their sapient attire. Bones are the easiest permutation of death, probably because they are the farthest removed from us. In life, we are aware of our bones as things that break or get weak or need fillings. They are a sort of reliable hardware. The skeleton is subservient to the viscera and the brain which are more human and more alive. We don’t think of the skeleton as that which will outlive everything else: our final corporeal presence in the world in the form of a pile of bones.
As we walked on, the crypts appeared older, broken down and even vandalized. Gina pointed out a few burnt logs surrounded by ashes here and there which seemed to imply that people stayed here at night, weather they were keeping vigil, squatting or grave robbing wasn’t clear, but from the look of some of the graves, I gathered it wasn’t entirely wholesome. Further down, we came to a very large crypt, which we mistook for a small chapel until we noticed a tiny coffin concealed inside. On the outside, the crypt had been splattered with paint. It looked as if someone had tested many different paint brushes on its walls. It didn’t look like deliberate malice but rather like a gross form of incompetence. There were also carbonized streaks where someone had rubbed ashes and charcoal onto the walls of the crypt. In some places, it looked like they had attempted to write something, but nothing could be made out. The door of the crypt was hanging open and under the shelf that held the tiny coffin there was a disordered pile of bones. Some of them about the size of a large grapefruit and rounded: skulls. Once I realized that I was looking at one, I noticed them all; there was even one next to the tiny coffin facing out. It looked very deliberately placed. I heard Gina gasp behind me and she pointed to one that still had a few locks of matted air clinging to it.
I began to feel somewhat unnerved by the spectacle; I didn’t think it right to keep peering into this grisly resting place. The long hair on the skull made it unmistakably a woman which took the psychological distance out of the experience. I was no longer looking at bones, but into the hollow remnants of faces.
In these kinds of situations, it’s always either drizzling rain or the moon is illuminating everything with a haunting sepulcher light, but now the sun was dazzlingly bright. The lack of mystery made the experience much more unnerving. It was like an encounter with death himself rather than with one of his tired ghosts. I took one more look at the pebbly orbital bones and the deliberate shape of the eye sockets and suggested that we go. I was beginning to feel like I was standing around the scene of an accident and my sudden lack of thoughts unnerved me. The only thought I had was death, even with the birds swooping overhead and the sound of the flower vendor’s radios outside the cemetery.
The other crypts now seemed to me artifices of fear, meant only to belie inevitable decomposition. The more ornate the crypt, the stronger the fear of physical death. As if by creating an inhabitable place to rest in after death would actually keep you alive somehow, like an old woman forever tottering around a one room apartment, never actually dying, but preserved by the cold marble walls around her.
We walked off the main ‘calle’ to a more remote part of the cemetery, where the crypts were smaller and disregarded. The friable walls seemed to close in around us, sometimes forcing us to squeeze through a crevice or confronting us with a dead end. Time had opened many of the doors here. The old locks had rusted off, the stained glass had grown brittle and shattered and the coffins inside had splintered and disgorged their contents. Inside each one of those ornate marble kilns there was a glow of exposed bone. Walking between the crypts was like walking between rows of bored spectators. I glanced about here and there, but tried not to let my gaze rest too long in any one place. There were no longer bodies, everything human and familiar had been effaced, what we were confronted with was limited to remains, remains and effects, the sloughed off and empty of personality.
Crypts doors stood partially if not entirely open, the windows were broken; everything was out in the open, in the sun. Gina and I were particularly thirsty and as we traversed the tumbled plots and tombs we occasionally encountered the shade of a grapefruit or mango tree. We slowed down to walk under the restorative leaves and the global fruit hung suspended before our faces, although not completely ripe, it was a temptation to break one open and suck out the juice, but when I unconsciously traced the branch back to the trunk of the tree, I found them all growing at the junction of several graves. I knew this to be the natural order of things, but I didn’t want to think of having the juice of those grapefruits all over my hands and dribbling down my chin.
Curiously, there was very little smell. I assumed that everything in this older cemetery had decomposed long ago. Everything had ossified and evaporated. Until we stepped between two crypts and the smell of decay seethed into the still air, like a drop of dye in a clear glass of water. I had expected people to smell like animals after death, but even in this they remain apart. Human decay has a greater sweetness, which is what makes it so much more choking. The smell is like ordinary decay combined with the smell of singed hair. It is a smell that is pre-cognitive; you might not know what it is, but there’s something incredibly unnerving about it. The further we proceeded down the calle, the stronger the smell became. Eventually, we came upon a crypt that seemed to be leaking a mixture of oil and melted candlewax. It looked like the marble structure was weeping out its resident.
We wandered around a little more after this, but after all we encountered, it began to feel ghoulish. I wasn’t there to look at the crypts and read the inscriptions anymore. There were only corpses and decomposition, everything else was flimsy scenery. Behind all the marble and candles, there was only one thing happening here and I was intruding upon it.
As we walked back to the street, I thought of the beautiful cemetery we’d stopped into before walking into the grisly one we had just left. How beautiful the place had been with narrow, green strips between the tombs and so many of them with large beautiful plants growing directly out of them. These people had accepted death and had peacefully gone back to the earth. Despite being a graveyard, the place had a feeling of being alive. It was like a riotous garden, where the bodies had lain a foundation for everything to fructify. By contrast, the marble and iron crypts of Recoleta had been perverse and morbid. They sought to convey their cargo directly to heaven but instead inextricably bound it to a grey limbo with neither the green of earth nor the white of paradise.