In any cemetery there are those whose famous names draw awkward pilgrimage, whose stature invites stares but whom you’re hardly sure you want to venerate or even know how. These are the authors and the presidents, the generals and the artists, the poets and the founders, the popular saints in every sense but the important one. Over my past few years of traveling I’ve lost the habit of seeking them out. But I owe this less to any intense egalitarianism and more to my poor sense of direction.
And yet in the general cemetery of Santiago, I came across a peculiar sight that let me know I’d found such a touchstone anyway. A strange grave in a quiet patio looks to be a junction of pentominoes, set half in marble, half in dew, stacked into two jutting towers that belong to another September 11. Here lies the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America, Salvador Allende, though he didn’t always. He was only buried here in 1990, seventeen years after his death in the violence of Pinochet’s coup and his subsequent burial in an unmarked grave. (Most agree he committed suicide rather than surrender to the forces bombing their own governmental mansion. Some, however, maintain allegations of assassination.) From the outside his grave is somber and distant, a lone flower atop its uninviting bench.
But when I walk down the stairs to his crypt, I see that, appropriately, he is reverenced underground. Flowers, ribbons, and candles are scattered about, and one newly placed letter near the front grate catches my eye. Two Catalans have written him:
Seguimos en la lucha, en cualquier rincón del mundo, contra los pocos que lo quieren todo, y de los muchos que tienen poco. Desde els Països Catalans a Chile, “lluitarem i vencerem.” VISCA LA TERRA LLIURE.
We continue the fight, in all corners of the world, against the few who want everything, and of the many who have little. From the Catalan Countries to Chile, “we will fight and we will be victorious.” LONG LIVE THE LAND THAT IS FREE.
It is not the last time we will hear from them here. I come across the Catalan community crypt, full of diplomats and immigrants alike, as the most cosmopolitan of cemeteries softly introduces itself.
The French community has a good street block fenced off for a gilded chapel.
Meanwhile, a British-Chilean marriage from the port days produces a stunning bilingual grave. Dandelions dot the husband’s English iteration of a psalm, separated by ivy from the wife’s Spanish gospel. The world is very small and it fits in this hole in the ground.
Others are grouped by profession rather than language. The officers and generals of the army loom in a veritable pantheon, elevated to the point of anonymity. It is a strange fortress in the center of the cemetery, defensive unto the end.
Across the way, a teacher’s grave is draped with ties from the uniforms of the school he founded. These particular schoolboys must have just graduated – the dust has hardly settled on the fabric, while the countless flowers at the foot of the memorial are the pristine beige of an arid death.
But most of this place is pinwheels and white Marys, plastic orchids and dissipating cigarettes, the sort of place watered enough to permit a little abandon. It is full of countless Christs crucified, reaching heavenward atop hills crafted from flowers and candles and prayer requests with rosaries tossed about their necks.
Rosebushes tangle above the oldest graves and weeds are all that has yet to grow upon the newer ones, but the trees and shrubs and flowers have made this cemetery into a well-kept jungle. Families are chatting between the palm trees. I spot a maté gourd in a crypt. This is the liveliest I have ever seen a people keep their dead.
They must keep their fiercest sorrow elsewhere.