Santiago's General Cemetery: A City Within a City

Visiting a city's cemetery is not out of the ordinary. I'm sure there are many among us who will admit to have gone to Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery to plant a kiss on Jim Morrison’s or Oscar Wilde's grave sites. Well, Santiago's General Cemetery offers much the same: an open-air lesson on Chile's heritage, its most recent history and a museum all wrapped into one huge park.

Cementerio General Entrance - Photo by Mallory Bracken
Cementerio General Entrance - Photo by Mallory Bracken

Buy some flowers at one of the entrances, then go in and forget you're in the middle of a busy city. Admire the sculptures by Chilean and foreign artists, visit the tombs of the country's prominent individuals and former presidents, and don't forget to pay your respects at the memorial for the victims of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile.

Sculpture by Rebeca Matte - Photo by Sonia Garay
Sculpture by Rebeca Matte - Photo by Sonia Garay

Bernardo O'Higgins, the forefather of Chilean independence, first opened the cemetery in 1821. Located in Recoleta, the park is one of the largest in Latin America (covering 86 hectares of land), and hosts more than two million graves.

In 1854, the cemetery established a small area to receive the dead of non-Catholics, mostly German and British Protestants. In what is known as Patio de los Disidentes (Yard for Dissidents), there are Jews, Freemasons and people that were excommunicated from the Catholic Church buried. Originally, the yard had a separate entrance.

Scattered around the cemetery, in between huge mausoleums or as part of some tombs, you'll find artwork by several national and international artists, such as Chilean sculptor Rebeca Matte (also buried here).

Historical Figures

Among the former presidents that are buried at the cemetery are Manuel Bulnes, José M. Balmaceda, Manuel Montt, Ramón Barros Luco (who has a sandwich named after him), Pedro Aguirre Cerda, Eduardo Frei Montalva and Salvador Allende.

Other well-known historic figures include Andrés Bello (founder of the Universidad de Chile), José Victorino Lastarria (one of Santiago’s gastronomic centers) German Tenderini (where to find replacement parts for blenders) and Enrique Mac-Iver (the street that has one optician after another). In history books they represent one thing, but in the streets of Santiago, these historic figures tie into something completely different in people's daily lives.

Memorial del Detenido Desaparecido y del Ejecutado Político - Photo by Sonia Garay
Memorial del Detenido Desaparecido y del Ejecutado Político - Photo by Sonia Garay

The cemetery also covers Chile's recent past, specifically the military dictatorship (1973-1989). Aside from its most well-known victims like Salvador Allende, Orlando Letelier, José Tohá, Miguel Enríquez and Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, there is a wall of remembrance with the names of the more than 3,000 disappeared and executed during this period.

Daniel Zamudio - Photo by Sonia Garay
Daniel Zamudio - Photo by Sonia Garay

Near the entrance on Avenida Recoleta, there is a memorial to Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year old who was tortured and killed in 2012 for being gay. He became the symbol against homophobic violence in Chile, and his death opened up the debate about homophobia and the lack of laws combating hate crimes.

Artists

Violeta Parra - Photo by Sonia Garay
Violeta Parra - Photo by Sonia Garay

Several Chilean musicians, artists and writers are buried here too. These include Violeta Parra (whose song 'Gracias a la Vida' is known worldwide), Víctor Jara (a singer-songwriter killed a few days after the 1973 coup), Eduardo "Gato" Alquinta (vocalist of Los Jaivas), Nemesio Antúnez (painter and engraver), and Pablo de Rokha (poet), just to name few.

The cemetery's mausoleums and tombs span a wide range of architectural styles: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mesoamerican, Gothic, Moorish and contemporary. There is also door after door of beautiful stained glass and elaborate ironwork.

The City Within

The sheer size of the cemetery overwhelms, feeling like a city within a city. Apartment buildings, houses, bigger houses, and mansions cram into its main avenues, streets, and alleyways, named after its inhabitants. The cemetery reflects Chilean society: the tombs tell you to what socioeconomic level the dead belonged.

Víctor Jara - Photo by Nicolette Ghimire
Víctor Jara - Photo by Nicolette Ghimire

If you get lost, don't worry. Just ask one of the men working in the cemetery, readily recognizable by their deep tans, or the guards riding around on bikes. They'll be more than willing to put you back on the right track and may even tell you stories about the tombs that don't appear in guidebooks. On a recent visit one of them confirmed reports that statues have been stolen from the grounds.

For more information on Santiago’s General Cemetery, visit
www.cementeriogeneral.cl
Don't forget to ask about the day and night tours!

Getting there:
Take line 2 of Santiago’s metro and get off either at the Cerro Blanco or Cementerios stations. If you get off at Cementerios don’t miss stopping by the bar "El Quita Penas" (Drown your Sorrows), right across the street.

Founded in 1920, the bar has a long history tied to the cemetery as a place where family and friends stop by to forget their sorrows after burying loved ones. Rumor has it that the football team Colo Colo was founded there, that mourners danced to all hours of the night after going to Gato Alquinta's funeral and that it was packed after the burials of Gladys Marín and Víctor Jara.

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