A cemetery that brought tourism to life

By Lucia Hernandez, IANS,

Montevideo (Uruguay) : As night falls in the Montevideo Central Cemetery, the city’s oldest, dozens of expectant faces wait outside its gates, ready to enter this realm of death to see it in a new way: that of the necro-tourist.

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Curiosity seekers of all types and ages were attracted by this project of the Montevideo city government, which launched this week the first of its guided tours that will periodically visit the oldest public necropolis of the Uruguayan capital.

Built in 1835 and expanded between 1860 and 1868, the central cemetery was conceived as a garden promenade surrounded by trees and funerary monuments where “it was usual to see people out for a stroll”, said one of the guides of this odd itinerary, professor of art history Marta Sirtori.

Almost 30 visitors were in the group that Sirtori led on this tour to the music of a women’s quartet playing violin, cello, flute and oboe at different points around the cemetery.

Together with religious objects like crosses or images of Jesus, the funerary symbolism of the place includes anchors, considered icons of salvation, poppies, narcotic flowers that “lead to eternal sleep”, and figures representing “old age and the passing of time” such as hourglasses, Sirtori said.

The angels, intermediaries between heaven and earth that “help man ascend”, share the scene with Masonic symbols like the square and compass, and decorations of a military nature “in line with ancient Greece and Rome”, the guide said.

“Bringing attention to funerary art” is, according to Sirtori, the goal of this cultural project, on which “we’re working with great respect and affection for the people buried here, our fellow citizens”.

Among the interested visitors, Marina, 13, took every possible chance to slip away from the crowd for a moment and take pictures with her digital camera of the sculptural forms that clothe the dead.

“It’s a good idea to visit a cemetery this way,” Marina said before photographing the steps on one of the granite tombs exemplifying the “new” funerary art, “with much cleaner, simpler lines” as Sirtori describes it.

“Today’s art is not overly ornate as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries,” the expert said, for whom the value of the cemetery lies as much in “the personalities” buried here – such as Francisco Acuna de Figueroa, composer of the Uruguayan national anthem – as it does in the works of art it holds.

American Edward Murray was the first to be buried with a tombstone in the Montevideo Central Cemetery, whose memorials are basically of marble, granite and bronze.

Now rich in monuments and sculptures, the graves in the central area were all the necropolis had until the installation of a Galician stone cross brought in the 19th century by Luis Fernandez, a one-time resident of Montevideo.

Then came the 1863 work of Genoese artist Lavarello, which represents a recumbent dead wife looked upon by her handsome, elegantly dressed husband.

Felix Morelli and Jose Livi are other Italian artists who left their mark on the central cemetery, where there are also works by local artists like Jose Luis Zorrilla de San Martin and Jose Belloni.

The speed with which the 100 tickets were sold out for this day of necro-tourism in the central cemetery was much appreciated by Sirtori, who expected no such response for a project that is new to Montevideo but has been done for years in cities like Paris and Buenos Aires.

On March 12 and 26, this tour of the dead will be repeated, something that the city government hopes to continue on two Thursdays out of every month, at least until May since – as a web site says – “it provides a different approach to the nation’s history and culture”.