Los porteños generally live with their parents much longer than those of us from the States. Whether the difference is purely a cultural one, an indicator of the economic hard times that have befallen Argentina in recent years, or both, many Argentineans live at home into their late twenties or beyond. Living with family members may provide a much-needed financial buffer, but few would argue it also results in an appalling lack of privacy. Consequently, Buenos Aires has no shortage of "hotels" that cater to those needing an hour or two for the odd clandestine rendezvous.
Few foreigners who visit Buenos Aires are aware the aforementioned establishments operate right under their collective noses, and fewer still know that Recoleta Cemetery, one of the city’s most visited sites, quietly lurks in the shadows of many such hotels. Thus, life in Buenos Aires often proceeds at its most passionate, fervent pitch against the looming backdrop of the city’s grandest symbol of death. Oh, the irony.
Within Recoleta’s massive brick walls and neoclassical front gates lay the richest and most famous among Buenos Aires’ dearly departed, a veritable Who’s Who of the city’s past. Celebrities and scholars, soldiers and captains of industry, statesmen and race car drivers, poets and ex-presidents are among the interned.
Eva Perón (1919-1952), Argentina’s former first lady, is Recoleta’s most famous resident, and one only need follow the largest gaggle of tourists to find the Duarte family mausoleum where she rests. Oddly, Juan Perón, her husband, is buried across town in a different cemetery.
Recoleta is a miniature city unto itself. Above-ground mausoleums stand shoulder-to-shoulder like Upper East Side apartment buildings, laid out amidst a perfect grid of city block-like sidewalks. Unlike Paris’ Cimetière du Père Lachaise, there’s almost no greenery. Virtually every square inch of space is occupied by one of the elaborate mausoleums.
Recoleta’s prestigious real estate isn’t doled out to lone individuals. These are family tombs, often spanning generations. Many are incredibly ornate, representing a wide array of architectural styles, often adorned with impressive statues. Some have glass fronts, the caskets inside in plain view, stacked on shelves one atop the other. Almost all have a basement, and occassionally one can see a steep stairway leading down to a crypt housing more caskets.
Some of the monuments are impeccably maintained, their marble and the bronze placard denoting the family name recently polished. Others have fallen into disrepair, either due to a lack of money or because they no longer have descendants to care for their upkeep. Plundering, vandalism, and the elements have taken a toll, with broken glass and locks, bits of trash, and stolen hardware the most glaring remnants.
Taking the term "adding insult to injury" to a new low, we saw one derelict tomb that had become an impromptu janitor’s closet, with cleaning products and other tools of the trade strewn atop a weather-beaten coffin.
Recoleta Cemetery offers a fascinating glimpse into Argentina’s past. Don’t miss it.