Published by BBC/PRI’s The World.
When you arrive at Chile’s General Cemetery on the weekend – the day for funerals – it feels like you’re outside a buzzing city mall – with cars parked round the block.
This is, in fact, one of Chile’s oldest and most sacred spots. Families come from all over the city to spend their weekends together – with both the living and the dead.
Alejandra and her daughter Gabriela have been coming to take care of her mother’s grave every week since she passed away two years ago.
“I come every week, every week since November 2010,” said Alejandra. “In another part [of the cemetery] is my father, we’ll go and visit him too. Together, all together, my siblings, my mother… It’s beautiful here. It’s peaceful.”
The huge 200-year-old cemetery is home to around 2 million graves. These include famous Chileans like poet Víctor Jara, singer Violeta Parra and most of Chile’s presidents.
Augusto Pinochet – who took power in a 1973 coup – is not here, but there are monuments to the many desaparecidos, or ‘disappeared’ from the time of his dictatorship.
A tour gives locals and tourists a history of Chile through the stories of the people, famous and ordinary, buried here.
From the mother who killed herself out of desperation for her lost children – and still searches for them among the graves – to the exhumation of socialist president Salvador Allende, who took his own life during the 1973 coup. The tour brings the tombs to life.
Student Camilo Oritz said the tour taught him many new things about the history of his country.
“I have learned a lot about the history of Chile,” Ortiz said, “things that happened in the past, it was amazing, things that I had never heard before. I learned a lot.”
The tour guide is dressed as a scary monk and in the dark the tour can actually feel a bit spooky. Laura Kelland is a British tourist.
“I’m very scared there are actors hiding and that they are going to jump out at me. So I’m a bit distracted,” she said, laughing.
Tombs range from crowded, tenement-style living to more lavish structures. In the Avenue of the Architects, Egyptian-style tombs sit alongside Greco-Roman and Gothic mansions. There are also group mausoleums housing entire soccer teams, or the likes of the Union of Milkmen.
“It’s a world within a world,” said Edgar who has worked here all his life, but he said that there are options for everyone.
While the residents are stuck in the past the cemetery itself has modernised in recent years. Funerals are scheduled via a ‘departures’ board and tomb architects even advertise their work by carving a discreet telephone number somewhere on a grave.
The desire of Chileans to be close to their loved ones will not die – making the cemetery not just a tourist attraction but also a vital part of every day life.