With a full day of free time in Sucre, we first wandered into the main square, had a fresh fruit smoothie at the market and then, at the recommendation of our guide, made our way to Cementerio General. Climbing the gentle uphill incline from the city centre was a strain given the altitude and midday sun.
We arrived at the entrance, passing flower stands vending colourful bouquets waiting to be laid as tribute to the dead. Standing between two white columns – above which read Hodie Mihi Cras Tibi (Today Me, Tomorrow You) – we debated whether we were meant to pay an admission fee. (Not the case.)
I didn’t know what to expect inside, but I immediately appreciated the shade and serenity afforded by the high walls of Cementerio General; true respite from the hubbub of the city.
Strolling amid manicured walkways, past grand family-occupied crypts and niche-filled columbarium walls, my mind was flooded with questions to which I had no answers; answers I’d have to look up later.
Without context my observations were superficial at best. Mostly I was surprised to find such an elaborate cemetery in a nation considered one of the poorest in South America. Who was buried here?
Absent any insight I simply let my feet take the lead and enjoyed the cemetery for what it was: drop-dead gorgeous.
A few things I learned later about Cementerio General:
- Niches are rented for a four-year term, which can be extended just once, for an additional three years. The cost is not insignificant. Occupying a niche for the full seven year period costs $10,000. It’s a fortune in a country where 45% of the population subsists on less than $2 per day* , yet Cementerio General appeared – at least to me – to be occupied by thousands. It was little surprise to learn that this is the resting place of Bolivia’s wealthy elite and former presidents.
- After the seven year period, remains are placed below ground where they remain for another twenty years. After 27 years the remains are removed from Cementerio General. If a family fails to collect them, they are deposited in a mass grave, which has unsurprisingly proven a point of contention for families who fail to collect their loved one in time.
- Rather than be buried with family, children’s remains are placed with other children. Men are often placed among those who shared a similar profession, illuminating the fact that one’s profession is central to a Bolivian’s self identity.
- This website suggests there are ‘professional mourners’ in Cementerio General, whose chief responsibility is to honour the memory of those laid to rest.
Cementerio General is located at the end of Callo Loa.
Have you visited Cementerio General? Let me know: comment below or shoot me a tweet.