‘How would you like to be remembered?’
The question kept lingering in my head while I slowly ascended the steps to the top of the cascade of burial grounds in Père Lachaise Cemetery of Paris one afternoon.
The sky was overcast. There were no other visitors in the visible distance. I looked over from a vantage point. Gravestones, vaults and monuments from different ages developed gradients of grey. Patches of green and trees of all sorts filled up the remaining of the vast space. They softened the texture and brought liveliness to an otherwise monotone landscape. Standing alone in the deserted cemetery, I imagined tens of thousands of invisible souls hovering around. Yet, not the slightest feeling of eeriness arose in me. I was filled with peace.
I have already lost count of the number of cemeteries I visited in travels. It grows into one of the few peculiar travel habits I have without knowing. At times, visiting the cemetery of a destination is an obvious choice, as a few cemeteries have long topped the list of must-sees in travel destinations. At other times, cemeteries are marked as tiny spots on my walking maps, and I would route the way to take a look. But most often, local people do not think cemeteries are worth even a mention on maps. Cemeteries in these places would only be stumbled upon if I roam around long enough.
Cemeteries can talk. They talk about things aside from death. They talk about history, culture, religion and society; and they talk a lot about the broader question of life. And this is why cemeteries intrigue me.
While Paris has Père Lachaise, the city’s twin in South America, Buenos Aires, has a parallel – La Recoleta, if only even grander.
La Recoleta looks more like a town – literally, a real ‘ghost town’. It is packed with enormous structures – mausoleums, monuments and vaults. Some look prominent, some look extravagant, some look formidable, some look solemn. Might they be the honest reflection of the owners’ characters in life, or might they be built according to the desperate wishes of the owners, in their deathbeds, in the way they want to be remembered?
In Père Lachaise, people poke around in search of tombstones of famous names such as Oscar Wilde and Balzac, having fun not unlike in an Easter Egg Hunt. But in La Recoleta, for most people, the hunt-part is much easier. Walking inside, aisles of majestic mausoleums and vaults cram the narrow lanes. But in one of these lanes, a crowd always huddles in front of a vault with a facade made of black marble and an elegant metal latticework. Given the vault owner’s fame, alive and post-mortem, this final resting place might look nondescript and modest. But once one sees the crowd, there is no need to look further. The hunt for Eva Peron’s grave is over.
Numerous metal plaques are affixed to the marble surface of the vault, with epitaphs eulogising the extraordinary woman and recounting her legacy. In the space between the grids of the lattice, fresh colorful bouquets are never in shortage. Day in, day out, admirers and visitors busily pose in front for photographs. The inscription of the imposing front gate of La Recoleta says: ‘Requiescant in pace’ (may he rest in peace) – I wonder if Eva Peron would agree that she finds peace in her repose here.