Sucre’s Cementerio General may lack the grandeur of La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires (and it can’t boast as famous an inhabitant as Eva Peron), but it is still a remarkably tranquil and beautiful place that is full of history. It is also a place where life is celebrated as much as death commemorated.
Visit the cementerio on a Sunday and there is almost a festival feel as dozens of families come to pay their respects to their dead relatives. The thing that is most striking is the lack of formality: the whole family visits together, children play amongst the graves, people take photographs of each other in front of statues, friends greet each other warmly and people bring picnics to eat in the lovely shady grounds.
Visiting the cemetery is to witness an extension of the Bolivian psyche surrounding death, where dead loved ones are assumed to be present and their lives are celebrated in their presence. It is a refreshingly different approach to death than the one with which I’m familiar.
The streets outside the cemetery walls are filled with people selling flowers, which makes for a colourful walk to the entrance. Once inside you’re likely to be approached by young children offering their services as guides; they are very knowledgeable about the cemetery because they work there putting flowers and mementoes in the graves – guiding for gringos is just a sideline.
The cemetery is mainly comprised of terraces five or six graves high, each with a glass or open front that doubles as a shrine filled with mementoes of the deceased: photos, foodstuffs, drinks or, in the case of children, toys. Children are buried in a separate section, each tomb front is filled with favourite toys and photographs which are both poignant and sad.
As well as being the final resting place for past Bolivian presidents, the cemetery is also home to a woman called Margarita who was brutally murdered by her husband and decapitated. It’s claimed that she has performed miracles from beyond the grave and many people go to her tomb to ask for her help. There is also a memorial to three students who were killed in fighting that erupted in 2007 when the Morales government decided to change the constitution. Friends here claim thugs were bused into Sucre to attack the student protesters, while the police released criminals from prison to do the same.
An unusual feature of the cemetery is communal tombs. These are often work or union related, such as teachers, bus drivers or miners, all buried together in large vaults. There is also a vault to the dead from the War of the Chaco (1932 – 35), a particularly brutal war fought between Bolivia and Paraguay in which thousands died not from combat but the hellish conditions of the Chaco region.
There are also some very grand family tombs of the rich and powerful, offering a stark contrast to the more humble graves of ‘ordinary’ citizens.