Anyone who has ever watched the BBC series Dr. Who and is familiar with the Weeping Angels, will understand the trepidation someone might feel visiting the Cementerio de la Recoleta. The Weeping Angels, also known as the Lonely Assassins, are alien killers as old as the universe itself. They’re also one of the most terrifying and dangerous foes Dr. Who has ever faced. If observed, Weeping Angels instantly turn to stone and cannot be killed but, if you blink or turn your back on them just for a second, they will kill you in an instant.
Weeping Angels look just like many of the statues in the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s not a big leap of imagination to wonder, as you wander around, whether any of the angel statues are about to spring to life and get you. I may have an overactive imagination, but so exquisitely carved are the statues that they have an unnerving lifelike quality. The lovely bronze statue of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak in her wedding dress (she died on her honeymoon), is just one example. Her family added a pretty lifelike statue of her dog, Sabú, when it died as well.
The Recoleta was once outside the city of Buenos Aires, and began life when a convent was built on the site in 1732. When the religious order was disbanded in 1822 the site was converted into the city’s first public cemetery, but the cemetery you see today is the result of remodelling in 1881. There are some 6,400 tombs inside the Recoleta’s walls, with architectural styles ranging from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Baroque, and from small and personal to immense and grandiose. It’s a spectacular place to explore.
This is where the great and the good of Argentinian society will spend eternity, and the cemetery is packed with the famous, rich and powerful. There are no fewer than 26 Argentine presidents buried here. As are Isabelle Colonna-Walewski, grandchild of the Emperor Napoleon; Independence War hero, Irish-born Admiral William Brown; Latin America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Carlos Saavedra Lama; Luis Federico Leloir, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; the Wild Bull of The Pampas, boxer Luis Ángel Firpo; not to mention the most famous of them all, Eva ‘Evita’ Perón.
Eva Perón’s tomb is the most visited in the whole cemetery. Strangely, given her fame, it’s one of the more subdued tombs to be found here. In 1955, Evita’s embalmed corpse was removed by the military after a coup against her husband. Her corpse spent two years hidden in Buenos Aires before being buried anonymously in a cemetery in Milan, Italy. It was then returned to her husband, who was in exile in Spain. Finally, her body was returned to Argentina in 1974. Today, it’s buried five meters down under tonnes of reinforced concrete to prevent its removal a second time.
Perhaps the most tragic death of any person buried in the Recoleta is that of ‘the girl who died twice’. One night in 1902, 19-year-old socialite Rufina Cambeceres died suddenly while going to the theatre. She was brought to the cemetery and her casket was placed in her family crypt and a funeral held. The following day a cemetery worker discovered that the casket had moved in the night and feared grave robbers had tried to open it to steal jewellery she was wearing. The casket was opened.
Inside, Rufina was dead and the casket lid had scratches gouged into it, her arms and legs were covered in bruises – she had been sealed into the casket while still alive. The theory is that she may have had a medical condition that induced a comatose-like state, making it seem to the three doctors who examined her that she was dead. The idea of her blind panic waking up inside a coffin is the stuff of nightmares. Luckily, her story may well be a ghoulish myth. What isn’t myth is her beautiful Art Nouveau tomb, with a life-size and lifelike statue of her opening the crypt door.
Her’s is just one of many gloriously extravagant tombs in the Recoleta. Walking around you come across the most extraordinary monuments to the dead but, amongst all this opulence, the nicest thing about spending an hour or two here is simply unearthing the small details that have been delicately carved into marble or cast in bronze. It’s a little like spending time in an open air museum, albeit a bit of a creepy one.