Closer to heaven: Brazil’s high rise cemetery


Santos (Brazil) : There are graves with a view of the sea, graves with a view of the rainforest and graves with a view of the legendary Santos FC stadium. Even Pele’s father has found his final resting place in the Brazilian city’s high-rise cemetery, which according to the Guinness Book of World Records is the highest of its kind in the world.

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The lobby is similar to that found in a hotel and the music — sweet violin and gentle piano — plays in an endless loop on all floors.

“This is actually not a cemetery,” said Mario R. Africano, director of Memorial, an ecumenical burial building in the Brazilian port city Santos.

The colours are bright and the rooms are suffused with light. The building, located in the city’s Marape district, extends 14 stories into the sky and contains about 16,000 graves.

The number of floors is supposed to more than double to 32. When that occurs, the highest grave will be 108 metres closer to heaven than a typical underground grave.

More than 300 guests can fit in the Imperial Room for funerals. Black leather chairs, white marble tiles and high windows in neo-Gothic style give the room a friendly ambience. There is a minibar, a separate suite and waiting staff.

“Death is hard enough. We tried to do everything to make the difficult hours for the family easier,” said architect Antonio Augusto, referring to the basic concept. The ambitious Pele Altstut started building the “vertical cemetery” in the mid-80s.

There’s no trace of the dark stone walls found in typical cemeteries. To the back of the building is a thick, lush rainforest called the Mata Atlantica where tiny primates hang on branches and snack on papaya. An aviary is home to colourful parrots and long-beak toucans. Fat goldfish swim sedately in a pond adorned by a fountain.

From the upper floors, there is a view of Santos’ Vila Belmiro stadium where football idol Pele celebrated many successes. Just a little farther away is the Atlantic Ocean. The view also takes in a little piece of the port where containers from Hamburg and China are stacked.

In Brazil’s high temperatures, bodies must be interred within 24 hours of death, which usually leaves little time for families to prepare for a funeral. To help them make use of every hour, Memorial is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

People who come from afar to attend the funeral are offered a suite for their overnight stay. There’s also a small restaurant in the building and a nurse is available around the clock. A flat-screen monitor in the lobby shows a schedule of the funerals. Newspapers and magazines are laid out there to occupy funeral attendees while they wait.

Each floor has rows of numbered blocks with up to 150 tombs. Each tomb can hold up to six bodies and is equipped with a ventilation system. Decomposition takes about three years. If the family wishes, the body can then be exhumed and the bones moved to a separate part of the memorial.

A three-year rental of a burial plot costs 10,000 to 35,000 Brazilian reals (between $5,900 and $21,000), depending on what part of the building it is located in. It’s also possible to buy a separate family burial place with all new grave sites for a much higher price of about 174,000 real. These burial facilities include their own memorial room.

The country’s first private crematorium is also located at Memorial. Funeral guests assemble in a room that resembles a cinema to pay their last respects. The casket is on a stage and at the end of the ceremony it is slowly lowered into the floor.

Small cascading waterfalls ripple calmly from the walls. The crematorium offers a wide selection of urns. The most popular are the shiny brass containers shaped like a book and urns with dolphins or stylized ocean waves.

Ahead of the All Souls Day (Nov 2) observed by Catholics to commemorate the departed, the solemnity of Memorial is disturbed by the sounds of the construction of a stage. The stage is needed to hold an ecumenical religious service attended by thousands of visitors.

Set up in Memorial’s courtyard, the stage was used by the band Trio Cristal and international music groups in a programme showcasing Memorial as a cemetery among the living.