Colin Dickey, today’s guest blogger and #MorbidMonday co-conspirator over on Twitter, is something of an expert on cemeteries and, in particular, their missing residents. His book “CRANIOKLEPTY: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius” looks at the after-death experiences of several famous corpses. Today he is sharing his stories about Buenos Aires famous La Recoleta cemetery and the wandering body of Eva Peron.
Entering La Recoleta, Buenos Aires’s grand, ornate cemetery, the directions to the Duarte Family crypt are fairly straightforward. From the main entrance, go straight until the first major intersection, then turn left and continue until a mausoleum blocks your way. Go around it to the right and turn right at the first wide avenue. Then go three more blocks, and turn left. You’ll know you’ve found it, our guidebook advised, because it’ll be heaped with flowers and flocked with tourists. You cannot enter the actual crypt, of course, but if you did you’d need to go through the trapdoor on the floor to a secret compartment underneath. There, you’d find two coffins, and underneath one of them another trapdoor secured by three plates of steel—enough, it’s said, to withstand a nuclear blast or a walking corpse. There, in a second compartment, you’d find the body of Eva Perón.
But we never found the Duarte crypt, because on entering La Recoleta, one’s immediate impulse is simply to wander. Like any good labyrinth, it feels both orderly and chaotic. Surrounded on all sides by black marble domes, stained glass and classical statues, the city of Buenos Aires fades away and you’re left only with the tourists and the dead. The individual rows and avenues of crypts feel stately, at perfect geometric angles leading off into the distance. Only when you survey the massive cemetery from the second-story window of the attached church does it reveal itself as the teeming necropolis that it is.
The closest parallel to La Recoleta in the United States is New Orleans’s St. Louis Cemetery #1, on the edge of the French Quarter. Like La Recoleta, St. Louis has long captured the imagination with its ornate crypts and edifices—which strike so many visitors as the skyline of some imagined city. As Joseph Holt Ingram wrote in 1835, “The tombs in their various and fantastic styles of architecture—if I may apply the term to these tiny edifices—resembled cathedrals with towers, Moorish dwellings, temples, chapels, palaces, mosques—substituting the cross for the crescent—and structures of almost every kind. The idea was ludicrous enough; but as I passed down the avenue, I could not but indulge the fancy that I was striding down the Broadway of the capital of the Lilliputians.”
“It was in reality,” Ingram concluded, “a ‘City of the Dead.’ But it was a city composed of miniature palaces, and still more diminutive villas.” But unlike the St. Louis Cemetery, Recoleta is hardly Lilliputian; the crypts range from ten to twenty feet high, and could comfortably house the living as they do the dead.
When Buenos Aires was founded in the sixteenth century, it was laid out in a perfect grid along the Rio de la Plata, around the barrios San Telmo and Monserrat. La Recoleta was originally the gardens of the convent of Our Lady of Pilar, established in 1732 well beyond this grid to the north, where land was cheap. But when the order was disbanded in 1822, the gardens were repurposed as the city’s first public cemetery. As cities faced overcrowding, locating a cemetery well outside of the city limits was crucial to maintaining the sanctity of the dead and the health of the living. But in the 1870’s a yellow fever epidemic drove many of the city’s residents out of the formerly aristocratic barrios, and they fled to the north, settling the area around La Recoleta and filling in the no-man’s land between city and cemetery. In fleeing death, they found a home near the necropolis.
As a new suburb of the rich, La Recoleta became the exclusive cemetery, and its simple graves and family plots were replaced with massive mausoleums and monuments to the powerful. There is a common saying that it is cheaper to live a life of luxury than to be buried in La Recoleta, and certainly one find’s no common humility amongst the statuary and buildings. And so there is still considerable rancor amongst the aristocracy that someone as common as Eva Duarte Perón, the very symbol of Argentina’s poor, should be buried amidst such affluence.
Originally, though, Juan Perón had even grander ambitions. Evita’s body had been prepared by the renowned embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, who filled her veins with glycerin and restored her body to its former beauty. But Ara’s work was only meant to last through the public viewing period, and a second embalming was needed to prepare her corpse for the monument that was being planned for her—one which would be taller than the Statue of Liberty. The job took two years and cost $100,000. The foundation for her mausoleum had not yet been finished when Juan Perón was disposed by a military junta—a junta that now found itself stuck with the well-preserved body of Santa Evita, the symbol of all they were trying to crush. Unable to bury it, lest her grave become a pilgrimage site, the military moved her body in secret all over Argentina, before finally smuggling it out of the country and burying it in Milan, Italy, in a small grave marked “Maria Maggi.” Only in 1971, after guerillas ransomed the body of another president that they had kidnapped and executed, did the government reveal the true location of Eva’s body. She was exhumed, found to be still in relatively good shape, and was kept in Juan Perón’s villa in Spain until he returned from exile in 1973. After his death, his surviving wife finally had Evita’s body buried in La Recoleta.
The extreme precautions, according to biographers Marysa Navarro and Nicholas Fraser, reflect a fear “that they body will disappear from the tomb and that the woman, or rather the myth of the woman, will reappear.” In a country where the dead continue to haunt the living, it’s not an entirely unreasonable fear.
Going to Argentina? Here’s the Atlas entry on Buenos Aires Recoleta Cemetery and one on the Tomb of Rufina Cambaceres, (pictured above) the beautiful 19 year said to have buried alive in Recoleta Cemetery