Cementerio General, Santiago de Chile
As the name 'general cemetery' implies, this is Santiago de Chile
's main cemetery, a large expanse of over 200 acres to the north of the city centre. Apart from its size (and the number of dead buried here – ca. 2 million!) it is primarily of interest to dark tourists for a few individual graves, not least that of Allende
and other prominent victims of the Pinochet
dictatorship in Chile
, but also a patch of nameless ones.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see: If you enter the cemetery from the Recoleta entrance (near the metro station) the first significant point of interest you will reach is the main memorial to the victims of the dictatorship era 1973 to 1990 (it was built in 1994).
Its centrepiece is a huge wall of names. In the middle, set apart from the other names, a single name stands out: "Salvador Allende Gossens
, Presidente de la Republica". The rest of the wall is divided into two somewhat asymmetrical portions. To the left are the 1000 names of the "disappeared", also listing the date on which each of them was last seen. To the right the even larger number of names (3000) of those known to have been executed – and age and date of the execution are given for each one as well. Note in particular those underage ones: teenagers, children even!
Below the towering wall of names is a stone garden where relatives of the disappeared/executed place little memento mori and photos for individual victims. The oval square in front of the wall of names is flanked by four rather modern head sculptures, and on either side of the wall of names are two more walls with urn niches representing each of the disappeared. Only a small proportion has been filled to date, most remain empty.
Moving on into the cemetery proper, the grave of Violeta Parra can be spotted (or will be pointed out to you if you're on a guided tour), who was a prominent folk singer, songwriter and composer in Chile. She committed suicide in 1967.
Further into the main part of the cemetery you realize that this still very active cemetery is really a veritable metropolis of the dead (with ca. 2 million "inhabitants") serving the metropolis that is Santiago de Chile
. The comparison with a city is further justified by the unusual prevailing style (by European/northern hemisphere standards), namely that of "apartment blocks" for the dead
: A large proportion of the cemetery takes the columbarium form, where niches for urns of the cremated are grouped together – only here they are also stacked in blocks connected by stairs, which really makes for an impression of apartment blocks scaled down approximately to 1:5.
Most of the niches, many protected by barred windows, are filled with various memento mori and/or gifts for the deceased. Soft toys and photos feature a lot. Photos include not just those of the deceased themselves but also, e.g. of the Pope. It's kind of scary to suddenly come across Benedict's wry smile in a place like this. As it was just after Christmas when I visited the place (in 2011) there were still several Christmas cards attached to some of the graves, including even the type that play tunes, carols in the typical sinus tone style of these tacky products. Bizarre!
Football club insignia are also a common theme. It seems to be normal in Chile that being dead is no reason to stop being a fan of a certain club. And many a grave proudly flies the flags of, mostly, Chile's top two clubs (I've forgotten their names, though).
It is interesting to note that this cemetery represents a clear class distinction in society: apart from the "apartment blocks" for urns of the cremated, the whole northern half of the cemetery, also with proper interred-coffin-type graves is comparatively simple – these are the graves of the "ordinary" people. The big mausoleums for the rich (see below) are segregated and confined to the southern section.
Staying in the northern section for a bit longer, one of the most noteworthy parts from a dark perspective is that labelled "Patio 29". Here, over a hundred victims of the early phase of the dictatorship were buried in graves marked only by simple iron crosses with a uniform "NN" (i.e. 'no name') on them. It is astonishing that these were buried at all, rather than left completely "disappeared" like so many others. Since the end of the dictatorship, forensic experts have been working to identify the dead of Patio 29 – in a few cases more than one body was found in a single coffin. Many were badly mutilated, i.e. tortured before being killed. Only a few now remain nameless and most crosses have been amended with the names of those identified. Some are also accompanied with little photos. One I found looked uncannily like the murdered Beatle John Lennon! It is certainly one of the most sobering sections of any cemetery I have ever encountered anywhere. Nowhere else does the grim terror of the junta's deadly track record become more palpable. A sign by the south-eastern corner of Patio 29 briefly outlines the significance of the place (in Spanish only, though).
Behind Patio 29, along the far wall of the cemetery, one can find the niche for Victor Jara
, who was probably Chile's most legendary singer-songwriter and political activist. In the very earliest days of Pinochet
's military coup Jara was arrested, detained, tortured (they broke his fingers so that he could no longer play the guitar) and eventually killed (with some 40-50 bullets) in the Estadio Chile, a sports stadium, which has meanwhile been renamed Estadio Victor Jara in his honour. Note, though, that this is a different stadium to the more infamous Estadio Nacional, which at the time had also been transformed into a kind of impromptu concentration camp by the military, in this case to hold thousands of political detainees, including the "disappeared" American Charles Horman, as portrayed in the movie "Missing".
Jara's body was then simply dumped in the street but later retrieved and eventually laid to rest here. The site has become a kind of pilgrimage shrine, as plenty of graffiti both on the grave and a sign nearby attest. A tree in front of the wall also has to endure countless marks and scratches, including the Communist hammer-and-sickle symbol.
In the southern part of the Cementerio General, closer to the main entrance, the scenery gets much greener, with lots of trees, and the style of tombs changes significantly: one now enters the section with the increasingly pompous tombs of the rich. Instead of simple patches and "apartment blocks" one now encounters classic mausoleums of faux gothic or Greek design competing with each other for grandness. The smell of money almost hangs in the air. A bit disrespectfully, I quipped at the time that I wouldn't be all that surprised if we found tombs with swimming pools attached to them round the next corner.
In that context it is perhaps a little incongruous to find Chile
's legendary Socialist
president Salvador Allende's tomb
in this section too.
After his death in the La Moneda presidential palace on the first day of the military coup, Allende
was originally buried elsewhere (in Vina del Mar), and only transferred here after the end of the dictatorship in 1990. He had to depart once more, though, namely when his descendants had him exhumed and undergo another autopsy in order to determine once and for all whether his death had indeed been suicide, as the first post-mortem had concluded in 1973. The new examination did indeed come to the same conclusion, but that has done little to dispel the doubts many people continue to have about the real circumstances of his death in the La Moneda palace that fateful day. Anyway, Allende's body is now back in his tomb, which also serves as his widow, Hortensia Bussi's grave. So finally, after all those decades they can rest in peace together. The legacy of Allende, on the other hand, is kept alive at this spot by another plaque quoting a passage from his famous speech on the radio shortly before his death. I found fresh flowers placed on the plaque when I was there. This national hero is evidently anything but forgotten.
Nearby, further south and a bit closer to the main entrance you can spot another grave of a prominent victim of the Pinochet death squads. In this case the grave of Orlando Letelier
, a Socialist diplomat, politician and associate of Salvador Allende's, who was first arrested during the military coup, tortured and detained in a concentration camp on Dawson Island in the south of Chile
. After his release he went into exile, took up an academic post in Washington D.C.
, and continued campaigning against the regime in his homeland. It was here in Washington that in 1976 he was assassinated (by means of a car bomb) by Pinochet's DINA secret police agents as part of Operation Condor (cf. Memorial Museum
, Parque de la Memoria
). After the end of the dictatorship years, Letelier's body was transferred here.
There are numerous further graves of significant personalities in Chilean history, not least almost all the deceased former presidents (the most notable exception being Pinochet!), too many to list and describe here in detail. Suffice it to say, there's plenty more to see when wandering around in this exceptionally inclusive (as opposed to exclusive) cemetery.
When you get to the main entrance with its big portal and crescent of arched colonnades opposite, take note of the intriguing group of sculptures to the left – of what looks like a group of veiled nuns (or angels?). It adds another slightly creepy, gothic, final flourish to the place.
To sum up: a visit to the Cementario General should be high on the priority list of any dark tourist coming to Santiago
, or any culturally/politically aware tourist, really. It's as impressive as it is moving. Compared to the other well-known South American cemetery, the much more touristy though significantly smaller Recoleta cemetery
in Buenos Aires
, this sprawling and contrasting counterpart in Santiago may have less of the gothic romanticism or popular culture appeal (cue: Evita Peron), but it more than compensates for this with a far more genuine emotional impact thanks to the personal stories and politics associated with the prominent dead here, as well as the tragedy of the not so prominent, or even nameless unfortunates that fell victim to Chile
's darkest chapter in the 20th century.
: about a mile and a half (2.3 km) north of Santiago de Chile
's city centre (if measured from Plaza de Armas) in the Recoleta district.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit out of the city centre, but not difficult to get to; free.
: Visiting this cemetery is a component of the Human Rights walking tour offered by La Bicicleta Verde – see under Santiago
and this sponsored page
! – which obviously has the added benefit of not only a thematic narrative by the guide but also the fact that you won't have to bother about navigating. But with the help of this chapter you could also do it independently:
You can take the metro from the city centre (e.g. from the interchange stations Santa Ana or Los Heroes), line 2 (yellow) goes to the dedicated station "Cementerios". Couldn't be easier, so far. This station is by a secondary entrance along the eastern side of the cemetery on Recoleta street, but that's not a bad starting point, as it is the closest to the main memorial to the victims of the dictatorship. The main entrance, however, is on the southern side at the northern end of La Paz street, where your tour may well end. From here you'd either need to walk back to the metro or catch a cab back to the city centre. Or walk it all – it's doable.
Opening times: daily 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Time required: Just ticking off the individual graves mentioned above will already take at least an hour, probably longer. Guided tours tend to last up to two hours. To have a good look around the rest of this remarkable cemetery can take much longer than that still. If wandering around cemeteries is your kind of thing, then I'd say allocate up to half a day.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Santiago de Chile
– I visited the cemetery as part of the longer 'Human Rights'-themed guided tour of Santiago by La Bicicleta Verde (see this sponsored page
!), which also included Londres 38
and a walk around other important spots in the city centre, e.g. to the La Moneda ex-presidential palace – where Allende died in the Pinochet coup on 11 September 1973 (i.e. where he got killed, either by his own hand or …). But of course you can do all that independently as well.
- Cementerio General 01 - main memorial wall of names
- Cementerio General 02 - main memorial personalized
- Cementerio General 03 - big heads
- Cementerio General 04 - few of the bodies of the disappeared have reappeared
- Cementerio General 05 - prominent grave
- Cementerio General 06 - apartment blocks for the dead
- Cementerio General 07 - multi-storey columbarium
- Cementerio General 08 - little niches for the poor
- Cementerio General 09 - grave with rain protection
- Cementerio General 10 - Patio 29
- Cementerio General 11 - no longer nameless ones
- Cementerio General 12 - Victor Jara
- Cementerio General 13 - today a pilgrimage shrine
- Cementerio General 14 - graffiti-enduring tree
- Cementerio General 15 - US cultural imperialism even here
- Cementerio General 16 - tombs of the rich
- Cementerio General 17 - Allende tomb
- Cementerio General 18 - plaque with famous last words
- Cementerio General 19 - Allende finally reunited with his widow
- Cementerio General 20 - Washington car-bomb assassination victim
- Cementerio General 21 - colonnade and sculptures by the main entrance