Brian Major | June 27, 2016 12:00 PM ET
A View of Life's End
Most people wouldn’t think of a cemetery as an ideal place to spend vacation time. But despite their obvious connection to our fate, mortality and the painful loss of loved ones, I’ve experienced some memorable moments of peace and reflection in cemeteries around the world.
In Guatemala, cemeteries are active environments, where family members of the deceased visit often to place offerings to their departed loved ones and perform sometimes elaborate rituals. Like most cemeteries in the Caribbean and Central and South America, the cemetery in Guatemala’s traditional K'iche' Maya town of Chichicastenango is an above-ground facility, and features brightly painted, almost festive mausoleums and crypts.
The cemetery is at the western end of the town and should be visited by day. A few years ago I strolled through the cemetery as part of a group of journalists, and watched as an older woman in traditional Mayan dress very solemnly burned colorful candles and pungent incense in front of a waist-high crypt that bore a photograph of her deceased loved one. It was an image I won’t soon forget.
Several years earlier I toured one of the world’s most famous internment facilities, Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta Cemetery. There I found an immaculately landscaped, almost park-like facility filled with visitors. Built around a convent and church in 1822 from a design by civil engineer Prospero Catelin and last remodeled in 1881, the 14-acre, above-ground cemetery is fronted by imposing neo-classical gates and tall Doric columns.
PHOTO: Plaques on the mausoleum of Eva Peron. (Photos by Brian Major)
Inside, the cemetery’s marble mausoleums are executed in Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles, and separated by tree-lined main walkways that extend to sidewalks filled with ornate crypts.
As I strolled about, the mood around the cemetery was not exactly festive, but it was far from funereal. Most people, myself included, hunted about for the most famous mausoleum, that of Eva Peron, the celebrated former first lady of Argentina.
But I was also intrigued by the crypt of Luis Angel Firpo, who in 1923 became the first Latin American to challenge for the world heavyweight champion boxing title. An imposing, life-sized bronze recreation of the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” stands guard at the crypt’s front.
The 200 year-old Jewish cemetery in Falmouth, Jamaica presents a much different scene. Rustic and generally empty of visitors save for tours organized by Falmouth Heritage Walks, the above-ground facility, located along a quiet street of this historic Jamaican town is one of the country’s 21 known Jewish cemeteries.
PHOTO: In Falmouth’s Jewish cemetery.
Falmouth was named for the English city of the same name and founded in 1769 by British colonists as a sugar distribution center. Jamaica was the world's leading producer at the time and thus Falmouth was also a central hub of the cross-Atlantic African slave trade. Ironically, the end of slavery and subsequent decline of Falmouth’s fortunes left many of the town’s historic buildings standing.
Flush with 18th century sugar trade cash, Falmouth was a meticulously planned city featuring wide streets in a regular grid, with a water supply system and numerous public buildings. The Falmouth cemetery today safeguards the remains of several Jewish families whose ancestors emigrated to Jamaica to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
The small graveyard of mostly above-ground crypts offers a fascinating look into the past, with many elegantly carved tombstones, several in Hebrew, and the proud ruins of tombstones that failed to fully withstand the ravages of time. One haunting tombstone tells of a husband’s “sacred” memory of his deceased 21-year-old bride, and the tiny scale of other cemetery crypts belie fate of the young children interred within.
For most people a cemetery certainly isn’t the first place to start a vacation. But if you find your travels bring you within proximity of a local cemetery that might provide some insight into a destination’s past and present culture, it may be worth arranging a visit. You may be surprised by what you find.
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