Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stand By Me (in the Cemetery)


To me some of the most fascinating aspects of modern civilizations are the structures that are abandon for decades and left in disarray. Fragments of what were once functioning parts of a municipality but because of technology, economy, war or any other number reasons, have been discarded and left behind with only a few people around who know the whole tale of their past. Places where mother earth has been slowly breaking down and taking back what was once hers. An amusement park on the outskirts of town. Old grain silos near the port. It was recently though that I discovered abandoned piece of Buenos Aires that was slightly more macabre.

My friend Nate and I recently took a trip to Chacarita Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Buenos Aires. Unlike Recoleta Cemetery, a popular tourist attraction in the heart of the city, Chacarita sits out near the end of the red subway line, Linea B. Similar to Recoleta is houses many open above ground tombs where caskets sit in plain site, however, a large part of it also exists underground. Throughout the grounds marble stairs descend down into immense corridors full of vaults. These underground hallways are spread out underneath the cemetery like an underground college campus.

The cemetery owes much of its immense size to the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. Even much of the concrete wall that encircles it is stacked full of vaults, and in some places they are stacked 25 feet up in the air. What most people don't know, and Nate and I discovered that day, is that there is a back part of the cemetery that is abandoned, hidden from view behind an inner wall of vaults. It was here that I experienced one of the freakiest moments of my life.

This area is accessible to anyone, a person just has to walk far enough to see opening in the wall that leads in. In this abandoned area sits the remnants of an old mausoleum about 15o meters long and with almost all the vault doors missing. It stands forgotten by the city and forgotten by time. When we first stumbled upon it we stood in awe. All around the structure lay fragments of marble vault doors, pieces of weathered coffins, and the shiny crucifixes that once adorned them. Above us, like out of a Hitchcock movie, birds flapped and fluttered, disturbed by the unusual presence of people, or at least living people, near their graveyard home. As we walked amongst the debris it was only a minute of two before we started discovering human bones. A vertebrae here. A femur there. We were speechless.

As we surveyed the perimeter of the structure we noticed large glassless windows at the base and peered in through the iron bars. Underneath the crumbling mausoleum was a corridor of vaults that sat in greater disarray then what lie above ground. We decided to search for a way down, while keeping an eye open for maintenance workers. The main stairwell down at the center was bricked off with shards of broken glass splintered across the top to prevent intruders from climbing over. The second stairwell on the far end was bricked and glassed as well however in part of the wall there was a rusted metal door. If we were to get down there this would be the way. We gave it a tug. Birds flapped out of the archways above scaring the hell out of us. It was unlocked. We caught our breath, checked one more time to make sure no one was watching us, and then made our decent.

I won't describe in detail on my blog what we saw in shadows underneath that mausoleum. What I will say is that what was above ground paled in comparison to that which was below. The 15 minutes we spent walking down were 15 of the eeriest moments of my life. Nate and I both agreed, it was like we we're in a horror version of the movie Stand By Me. And that is how the painting at the top of this post came to be. It is derived from a climatic scene in the movie that takes place not long after a group of friends discover a dead body along the railroad tracks. When I look at it I think not of the four kids in the movie, but rather what Nate and I discovered one day at the cemetery.

Here's preview of pics from the cemetery (click to enlarge).
Check out the rest of the pics on flickr.

The abandoned mausoleum

Currently Reading:
Lord of the Flies
by William Golding

Currently Listening To:
Song: Dead and Done
Artist: Bobby Long (myspace) (iTunes)

For more on how I first ended up in Buenos Aires check out the first post of Harmony and Dissonance.

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