Conversations

Visiting the dead

My wife and I like to wander around in cemeteries. How people treat the dead interests us, and there is often quite interesting stylistic architecture to be found in tombs and crypts. We especially like the ones in cultures that display old photos of the dead in portrait frames on the tombstone or on the crypt. We have wandered the major cemeteries in every city where we’ve lived and every city we have visited for longer than a couple of days.

During our recent visit to the foreboding town of Punta Arenas at the bottom of Chile, we spent an hour or so at the cemetery there. There were three things in particular that interested us. First, there are two main entrance doors; one is permanently sealed and the other next to it was built after the original door was sealed. It was sealed after the body of a woman named Sara Braun was carried through the original doors. What we don’t know is why. Obviously Sara Braun was an important person in Punta Arenas history. Second, the manner of sealing crypts with a glass window and filling the space with memorabilia important in the person’s life, as well as often photos, and death data; in some cases, a clock frozen at the hour of death. Third, the grave and statue of a Patagonia indigenous native — a story in itself, that I will offer below that photo.

Here follows a short photographic sampling from the Punta Arenas city cemetery. (Click on any photo to enlarge to full size.)

The last and unknown indigenous Patagonian

We were told that some years ago, in modern times, the Indian seen in this statue, simply appeared one day walking across the central city park. He stopped in the park, sat down, and died. He was naked (trust me, it’s damn cold down there) and apparently one of the indigenous people who predated European settlers to Patagonia, who were believed to have died out entirely almost a hundred years before. Nothing at all was known about the man and not another indigenous native has ever been found. He was buried here and this accurate representation of him sculpted. Traditionally, it became good luck to leave something for the Indian, and to offer thanks for good fortune at this grave. Those are all the plaques you see on the walls, and the items hanging from the statue.

The last tango in Punta Arenas

This, and some of the photos to follow, is of the display case built into the head of a crypt. There is a one hundred meter long, ten foot high wall of these crypts; the body lies within this long, narrow box. The photo below shows an empty crypt to illustrate the idea of how narrow they are. When I suggested to the local person with us that I would not fit in a crypt like that, he showed us larger ones further along the wall for people of a more robust nature.

Next?

That children become fatally and painfully ill and die before enjoying any of the loves and pleasures we have known is utter and absolute and final and inarguable proof there is no god.

The old and living reflected in the crypt of the young and dead

The clock shows the “fatal hour” in the photo below.

Typical crypt display with clock frozen at the fatal hour

A pretty young woman with representations of things she loved.

With her dolls and flowers and toys

As seen below, not everyone has the money for a glass display box and brass inscriptions. These are the most touching.

Touching in its poverty and simplicity

Finally, an example of a typical grave, note the photos of its occupants. Most of these graves were covered with well-tended flowers, and even the plastic flowers were kept bright and clean. Do all wonder who will care for us and sustain our memory after we have returned to that nothingness that existed before our birth and brief trek through living days?

A grave in Punta Arenas, Chile

Have a nice day.

Advertisements

10 replies »

  1. Thanks for taking us with you on this journey Don because I like cemeteries too, there is something to be said for spending time among those who are resting. Unlike you, I do believe that death is not the end and when the time comes I’ll shake your hand with no hint of ‘I told you so.’ Promise.

  2. The dead don’t talk back, Brad, and that’s pretty much it. (Except for the comfort of being able to say there but for fortune go I.)

    I’d rather not take the chance, Tracey, so maybe it’s better if we shakes hands while we’re alive.

    That’s my twist on Pascal’s Wager (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/): Suppose you put off doing something in this life because you suppose you will get to do it after you’re dead, and you happen to be wrong? I am of the do it here and now or forget it school of thought.

    But feel free to say I told you so if our “energies” encounter each other beyond space and time.

  3. I almost didn’t dare come back to see if you had replied because I knew what I was in for!

    I can do the here and now too you know and oh yes, life is for the living just shoot me when I’m old:-)

  4. “That children become fatally and painfully ill and die before enjoying any of the loves and pleasures we have known is utter and absolute and final and inarguable proof there is no god.”

    This.

    It is inarguable, but folks will argue anyway. I don’t know how.

    Is that story about the Indian true? Or a local legend? True or not, you can just imagine his lonely trek to the place that had killed all he had known. Puts me in mind of Black Elk Speaks, something like that.

    • The astonishingly irrational, even ridiculous, things people will defend and argue in favor of will always astonish me. It’s one of life’s eternal questions that I am sure can never be answered. Like, why was all Communist architecture flagrantly ugly? Why do people kill each other? Things like that.

      I don’t know how much of this story is true, but it seems to be a fact that this naked indigenous Patagonian indian did appear one day in 1929, walked into the main city park, sat down, and died on the spot. The statue in the cemetery is supposed to be his exactly and life-size likeness. There were not, by the time, thought to be any indigenous people of this tribe left around Punta Arenas.

      I think it’s mostly legend, myth-making from the unknown… same source as religious beliefs.

      • I think it has the makings of an excellent story, or the genesis of one. Something sort of Marquez-ian about it, or even Mari Sandoz-ian. (Minor Nebraska writer.) It just has the tingly feel of a good story, or the start of one. Thanks for posting this.

        On religion, more astonishing yet, people kill and die for it.

        Of course, people kill and die for lots of silly things. The folks that invented suicide bombing – the Tamil Tigers on Sri Lanka – were protocommunist atheists, as were the French anarchists who (I think) more or less invented terrorism as we know it. The inscrutable irrationality of human behavior is endless. Were it any other way, though, we might be out of jobs. Wait a minute, we don’t have writing jobs. Well, like I said, inscrutable.

  5. I don’t think it’s a big deal in Argentina. The Mexicans own Dia de los muertos.

    Slovaks do good cemeteries.

    One of my favorites graves is in the Nice, France cemetery. It is a vault-like thing with a cracked and slid open slab on top, and sticking out from the slab are a pair of grasping hands. I’ve since lost the picture I took of it — back in film days.