Behind every grave in every graveyard there is a story. Find out some tales from beyond the grave in Recoleta Cemetery.
“My biggest fear in life is to be forgotten” Eva Peron
Eva María Duarte de Perón may be Recoleta Cemetery’s most famous resident, but the list of its other occupants reads like a Who’s Who of Argentinian history. From presidents to poets, athletes to academics, exploring its mausoleums and memorials provides a fascinating insight into the country’s past.
Recoleta Cemetery – Buenos Aires’ city of the dead
Once the vegetable garden of the adjoining Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Recoleta Cemetery was inaugurated in 1822 as the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires. It was designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin, who was also responsible for the city’s cathedral in the Plaza de Mayo.
Housing over 6,400 statues, sarcophagi, coffins and crypts over four city blocks, Recoleta Cemetery is a hauntingly beautiful place. With its wide alleys and shady streets, this labyrinthine city of the dead is a real mish-mash of architectural styles. These include art deco, art nouveau, baroque and neo-gothic, adorned with angels, Madonnas, saviours, crosses and cathedral-like domes. The tombs themselves range from plain brick and mortar boxes to detailed works of art.
Many of these tombs have fallen into a state of disrepair, with broken glass and thick layers of cobwebs. Although I felt sad that there was no-one to look after these people after death, they add to the eerie beauty of Recoleta Cemetery. It also made me curious about the people laid to rest behind those rusted doors. They must have been important at their time of death. How could they be so forgotten in the ensuing years?
Behind every grave in every graveyard there is a story, and Recoleta Cemetery is certainly no exception. Here are a few of them.
Rufina Cambacérès – the girl who died twice
The tale of Rufina Cambacérès death is the stuff of urban legends. Rufina was born into money in 1883, thanks to her family’s large cattle fortune. Fast-forward to 1902 and it is Rufina’s 19th birthday. Whilst getting ready to go to the Teatro Colón to see a show, she collapses & doctors pronounce her dead. The next day they bury her in Recoleta Cemetery.
Now this is where it gets interesting, not to mention a little macabre. Cemetery workers later hear screaming from her grave. When they dig her up, there is evidence that she had unsuccessfully tried to claw her way out. There are scratch marks on her face and on the insides of the coffin.
Her mother, absolutely distraught that they have buried Rufina alive, has the tomb rebuilt in its Art Nouveau glory, complete with sculpted orchids and soulful statue of her daughter aged 19. The statue is particularly striking, depicting Rufina with her hand on the door as if she is trying to escape her tragic fate.
Although this story has never been verified, and some dispute it, you will not forget it … will you?
Luis Ángel Firpo – the big fella
“Who’s the dude in the bathrobe?” I asked myself.
Luis Ángel Firpo was Argentina’s first world heavyweight boxer. His was a big fella, over 6.5 feet tall & 220 pounds, which earned him the nickname “El Toro Salvaje de las Pampas,” The Wild Bull of the Pampas. His most famous fight was in 1923 against Jack Dempsey in New York City, which resulted in Dempsey knocking out Firpo. This was despite Dempsey having been down for a count of 8, and having to be helped back into the ring. Some felt that the result had been rigged
On his retirement, Firpo had an amazing record of 32 wins out of 38 fights. He died in 1960 & is still thought of as one of the greatest boxers in history.
Eva Perón aka Maria Maggi
Adored in death as in life, people flock to Eva Perón (Evita’s) final resting place.
The Duarte mausoleum is not remarkable. It is built in an art deco style with a bronze door inlaid with leaves and flowers. Perhaps more interesting is how she eventually got there.
Evita died of cancer in 1952 during the presidency of her husband, Juan Perón. However, her body wasn’t buried in the Duarte family mausoleum for 35 years.
Juan Perón had his wife’s body embalmed whilst a mausoleum was built. But in a change of heart, her body went on display. In 1955, Juan Perón was ousted during a military coup and fled to exile in Spain. Evita’s body was brought to Milan and was buried under the alias of Maria Maggi. There she remained until 1971, when her body was exhumed, taken to Madrid (Juan Peron was still in exile there) and reburied.
Perón returned to Argentina, and the presidency, in 1973 but Evita didn’t go with him. It wasn’t until after his death the following year that her remains were dug up once more. She was then reburied beside her husband’s grave in the presidential palace grounds.
But her story doesn’t finish there. In 1987, anti-Perónistas broke into the burial plot and chopped off Juan’s hands. Evita was dug up yet again, and interred in the Duarte family mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery.
Recoleta Cemetery’s living occupants
I could not sign off this post without mentioning the stray cats roaming the cemetery. Reportedly, there are around 75 of them and they are well-fed and well cared for.
The practical stuff
- The cemetery is open daily, 7am to 5.30pm. Entrance is free.
- Hawkers outside the cemetery wall sell maps.
- Free tours in English take place at 11am on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- I recommend arriving before midday when it is cooler and quieter.
- The closest subte stations are Las Herras, Retiro and Callao. Buses also pass near to the cemetery, including no. 59 from Palermo.
- I stayed at the charming and exceptionally friendly Duque Boutique Hotel in trendy Palermo Soho. Highly recommended.
For further information on navigating the city’s transport system, check out my post Getting around Buenos Aires
Can you recommend any atmospheric cemeteries?