What better place to uncover the bones of a city than its general cemetery (if you pardon the pun, that is). We’ve always been fascinated by and drawn to cemeteries, particularly in Latin America. For here they really do know how to commemorate and celebrate the dead. In Buenos Aires you have the elegantly over the top Recoleta, which is more city within a city, with its labyrinth of dense laneways packed with gorgeous winged angels and hauntingly grand rococo mausoleums with rocketing obelisks. But, due to the amount of marble used, Recoleta is wholly white or black with very little colour.
In Chile the main cemeteries of Santiago and Valparaiso are also pretty much filled with elegant grand 19th Century mausoleums, intermixed with stunning brutalist modernist bunkers – but no colour.
However, in Mérida, now we know it a bit more, it wasn’t a complete surprise to find that the Cementerio General here is the antithesis of Recoleta and instead a riot of tropical colour and humble crumbling architecture – a true reflection of the city around it.
There’s been a cemetery here since the early 19th Century when it was, and still is, referred to by the locals as the Campo Santo or Holy Field, built on the grounds of an old cattle ranch called San Antonio X’Coholté on the Camino Real pilgrimage route to San Francisco de Campeche. Towards midday, when we got there, the heat was rising with little shade other than some gorgeous old pink frangipani trees with their flowers littering the narrow pathways. It’s hot here in the garden of good and evil.
The first thing that strikes you about the Cementerio General is just how densely packed and sprawling this place is – it’s seemingly endless and flat. Many of the graves feature little houses for the afterlife, each one trying to out-do the other in gaudy bright colour. They have roofs, broken glass windows and rusting gates that open to reveal a dusty box crammed with things for the dead – cans of beer, packets of food, faded photographs, burnt out candles and sacred iconography, including of course crucifixes and carvings of La Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. She appears everywhere here, often as an over-painted head stone adornment that’s kind of reminiscent of that bodged restoration attempt by an over-zealous church-cleaner in Spain. Remember that?
Once you leave the main pathway, you’re in a densely packed jumble of graves, some cracked open and seemingly uncared for, whilst others are well maintained with caring family members clearly having given the stonework a recent coat of paint. Often the paint tins are left conveniently beside the grave – for touch-ups perhaps?
It’s a tumble-down crumbling place that’s so incredibly charming and beautiful, again reminiscent of the barrios of Mérida, with surprises around every twist and turn. We turned one corner and came across an abandoned rusting blue coffin, its lid slightly prised off with the lining spilling out. Not sure how or why the broken umbrella found its way here, but it certainly made an arresting sight! Around another corner was another rusting coffin, this one fully rusted away, revealing its ancient satin lining and, I’m afraid to say (look away now), actual human remains. I think I saw a smashed jaw, but I didn’t linger too long. And just past here in a long row of ‘hole in the wall graves’ for the resting poor (‘niches’ in Spanish ) were three skulls crammed into one of the niches with an empty mayonnaise jar.
Caring for the dead is clearly a losing proposition for the living. There was hardly anyone here other than perhaps 2 or 3 people attending to a family plot. One young guy, with his radio blaring, was repainting his family plot in a vivid blue – but most of these graves have been left to decay in the tropical heat with the slinking lizards and skulking dogs.
Right across Mexico in the first two days of November the dead are revived, revisited and remembered during Los Días de Los Muertos when the little houses of the cemetery again become beacons of light for departed souls, candles lit in the windows to guide them home to their loved ones.
But until November, the Cementerio General will sleep silently in the blazingly hot garden of good and evil.