Beauty in the Tombs

Convinced of our mortality
by so many confirmations of final dust,
we drop our voices, our steps grow slow
between the slow rows of family crypts,
whose rhetoric of shadow and stone
promises or prefigures the coveted
dignity of being dead.
There is beauty in the tombs,
the spare Latin and link of fatal dates,
the conjunction of marble and flowers,
the broad intersections, as cool as patios,
and all our yesterdays of a history
now stilled and unique.
We mistake this peace for death,
believing we yearn for our end
when we yearn for sleep and oblivion.
Vibrant in swords and in passion,
asleep in ivy,
only life is real.
Space and time are its shapes,
the mind’s magical modes,
and when life burns out,
space, time, and death go out with it,
as when light fails
the image in the mirror fails,
already grown dim in the dusk.
Kindly shade of the trees,
breeze rich with birds rocking the branches,
my soul losing itself in other souls—
only a wonder could undo their existence,
a wonder not to be understood,
however much its imagined recurrence
taints our days with dread.
These thoughts came to me in the Recoleta,
in the place where my ashes will He.
— Jorge Luis Borges, La Recoleta (translated from Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)

At each turn a pane of broken glass, a twist of rusted iron or the dust of crumbled stone greets me. The patterns of their demise are unique and yet each of their stories ends here, in La Recoleta. The universal tale of this cemetery, like all others, is loss. Resting here, however, are the rich, the powerful, the famous, the mysterious, and of course, the forgotten. I am not the first to be captivated by the rows of sepulchers and maze of mausoleums here. In fact, La Recoleta is one of Buenos Aires’ top attractions for visitors, and our afternoon walk there was not a solitary one. Still, how was it that a place filled with so much death brings in so much life?

LaRecoleta1.jpg

For me, La Recoleta was simply unlike anything I’ve ever seen—that alone will draw me back again. From above the cemetery looks like a city itself, though miniature in stature. Each resting place juts up to its neighbor, leaving space only for the occasional tree and a few small open areas. Some of the paths between the tombs are wide enough for a car, others are mere alleyways. The mausoleums of this particular neighborhood are as varied as their inhabitants. Some are marble homes adorned with columns and statutes, eerily reminiscent of palatial splendor and immaculately kept. Others are forged of iron and glass and plain stone, showing the familiar markings that time and weather and neglect bestow. I stopped at many of these crumbling sepulchers, sometimes simply because the glass was broken and I had a window into their life and death. Inside these tombs were the normal tokens of faith and remembrance - a cross or a bouquet of flowers, a bible or a family photo. In many of them you can see the caskets themselves, stacked up to the ceiling in neat rows. But naturally on the subject of death we look down too, and in La Recoleta I often found an opening in the floor and a staircase into the dark, where more family members found their resting place. The mausoleums that gave me greatest pause, though, were those whose ceiling had fallen through. Places that were never meant to see light from above were suddenly exposed to the elements, their place of everlasting peace now strewn with broken stone. It was clear no one was coming to tend to their home. But sometimes the crumbled ceiling let in the right amount of sun and rain, and instead of a floor covered in pieces of a tomb, there were plants - what most of us call weeds, really - but it was life. Life that not even death could stop.