Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Spanish Way Of Death

By Richard Morley
I have no idea how many people die in Madrid each year. Neither the internet nor my local library can give me the figures. But however great the figure, the dead have to go somewhere.
From the thirteenth century the dead of Madrid preferred to be buried near or inside a church. Many churches in the city were actually built by wealthy families for that very purpose. It was considered that the further you were buried away from a church, the further away you were from God.

So you can imagine the shock of the populace when, in the eighteenth century, King Carlos III decreed that there should be no more interments inside religious buildings. The stink, he said, made attending church unpleasant. Besides, as the city started to grow there just wasn’t enough space. After time original occupants of graves were exhumed, their bones taken to a central ossuary, the rest of their remains buried in a communal grave, and their churchyard plot was given to a more recently deceased citizen.

At the beginning of the next century, his successor, Carlos IV, had built two cemeteries outside of the city, but no one wanted to be buried there. His successor, the French imposed José Bonaparte, (yes, I know about Ferdinand VII, but he only reigned for two months!) built more cemeteries outside the city walls, but they continued to be unpopular. Even Isabella II, a queen renowned for her public works and who passed a royal decree on the 28th of August 1850 that no cemetery could be built less than 1500 “Varas”, (an old Spanish measure equivalent to the English “yard”, or just under a metre,) from the city centre, could not really change the mind or the populace. It was also decreed that no cemetery could be built on the banks of the River Manzanares.

The Chapel of Almudena
So outside of this limit a number of small cemeteries were created. There was one near the Puerta de Toledo where, among others, executed criminals were buried. However, it was not well protected and, it seems, until they thought about building a wall around it dogs would break in and run off with dug up bones! There was one for those who had died during the war of independence and one for hidalgos, or knights, in the Retiro Park. No trace of this remains, but it is said it was near the present site of the stature of the fallen angel and the flowers in the rose garden nearby do grow well! There was also a Jewish graveyard in Embajadores and one for Moslems in La Latina.

It took a catastrophe to change the mind of the people and the church authorities.
In 1884/85 Madrid suffered an epidemic of cholera. More than fifteen thousand died and this would have over-loaded the existing cemeteries.
Fortunately, at that time, the authorities had sanctioned the creation of a new cemetery in the area known as Elipa, about five kilometres east of the city. This was to have the name of the Necropolis of the East. (There was already one in the west at San Isidro.)
The new Necropolis of the east was huge. Now known as El Cementerio de la Almudena, it has been expanded to two hundred and twenty hectares. That’s as large as the Retiro Park, and from 1885 until 1973 was the main last resting site for everyone in the city. More than five million Madrileños are buried there, which is actually more than the population of the present city.
Satallite's eye view

Intrigued by the satellite view of it on Google Earth, I went there one Sunday to explore. That was a mistake for a photographer manqué as photography is forbidden on Sundays and Mondays. A uniformed attendant politely explained that many people come to tend graves on Sundays and Mondays is a traditional day for burials. So, taking snaps on those days was considered inappropriate. So I had to return later in the week.

But that Sunday was strange for me. For the first time since living in Spain, I felt like I was intruding. I was brought up protestant, spent the last 35 years in Moslem countries, and now having no religion, I was unsure of what was considered polite and respectful behaviour is such a place. I saw no signs about smoking, but noticed, as the trained eye of a smoker does, that there were no discarded cigarette ends. I wasn’t even sure if it was appropriate to drink from my bottle of lemonade. Then I saw a family with bright umbrellas, folding chairs and with a plume of blue smoke drifting above their heads, as they enjoyed a picnic around grandma’s grave.

Cars were everywhere. In a place the size of a small town transport is essential. The final part of bus route 110 brings you deep inside the cemetery. There are signposts, speed warnings, speed bumps and one way streets. No dead ends, at least in the street layout, I noticed. A pattern of behaviour was visible. Cars would pull up to a grave. Someone would nip out and change the flowers and then pull away on their way to lunch somewhere.

I wished I had a car as I spent the next two hours wandering from place to place. It is said that death is the great leveller; that rich and poor will be as one come that day of reckoning. That may well be true, but where we rest awaiting that dreadful day can show that in death as well as life, some things are not equal.
Desirable Residences
My geologist’s eye recognised Granites and marbles as materials of choice for tombs. Not cheap! But I also noticed simple brick built constructions, and even plain concrete. There were single graves that commemorated many generations, double spreads for extended families, and great mausoleums to house the remains of dynasties. I peered into one. It was like an old English parlour with a table piled high with flowers, photographs of the dear departed hung around the walls, candle holders. There were large tombs set into the walls that took, I presume, entire adults, and smaller, locker sized recesses for urns of ashes.
Away form those des res for the departed were what I have discovered are called “niche” graves, which in much the same way that madrileños like to live in towering apartments, so they like to rest in peace. Set into walls, as much as six levels high, the earthly remains are inserted lengthways, like in mortuary cabinets, and a simple stone of remembrance is placed in the entrance. At first I wondered why there were ladders everywhere, but then realised they were for the grieving flower arrangers to reach the resting place of their late relatives.

Rooms to let

This is strange and new to me. Laws were passed in Britain and in the US that human remains should be well covered, at least “Six Feet Under”. English graveyards are pleasant, if not happy places, but in the Cementerio de la Almudena I was very much aware of the scent of decomposition. I think I agree with Carlos III, it is not a nice smell. It hung heavy in the air and clung. I saw one family grave with the top slab removed, ready for yet another member to join those gone before. I noticed many graves, although covered with a memorial slab, were open at the sides or at the front. In the older part of the cemetery many of the brick sides had collapsed. Signs had been left to rust and corrode, broken cables left to hang lifelessly. It was as though it was not just the departed, but also their last resting places that were also decaying.

Not even the smoke of my cigarettes could mask its cloying scent.

The grounds are heavily wooded. When the land was bought by the city in the 1880s the documents reveal there were over 5000 trees on the site. It is high summer. The trees are full of leaf and the pathways well shaded. Even as the site was landscaped into its present tiered terraces and lawns, I am sure there are just as many, if not more, now.
Reading the Spanish double surnames on the graves, one becomes aware of the links between families. I noticed one family’s double names were Tendero Mercante and was amused that a shopkeeper and a merchant should join in holy matrimony. I saw many Aznars, Rejoys and Zapateros, but searched in vain for a family where these political named were united. It would have made an intriguing photograph.
And then I found a small garden where there are no names recorded at all. A simple slab reminded me that “Ante Dios Nunca Seres Heroes Anónimos”, before God there are no unknown heroes, and thought I had stumbled on a tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but than another plaque revealed this little plaza was in memory of the fallen of the Falange, Franco’s forces of the civil war. I did not find any Republican memorial.

I knew about a British protestant cemetery in Carabanchel, because even non- Catholics have to be buried somewhere, but I was unaware of the much smaller “civil” cemetery just across the road from Almudena. Here Madrid residents from other countries are buried. I thought at first I had found a purely German cemetery, but later found French and Greek names. Here a sign warns that photography is completely verboten, er, prohibited, but some of the graves are quite unusual, so I couldn’t resist.
There are hidden stories here. I wondered about the woman who was born in Buenos Aires in 1952 and died in Madrid. What brought her here? Was she the returning daughter of a fled Republican? Who were the all the Germans who died here? Some of their graves look very Tutonic.

Everyone I suppose has a story to tell. There are over five million of them in the Cementerio de la Almudena. Some are famous: Frank Yerby, the African-American novelist who died in 1991 is here, so is Olga Ramos, a Spanish singer whose recordings I enjoy, and several other musicians and actors.

Sadly, there has been some vandalism of graves. I watched a distraught couple collecting the smashed remains of a flower vase. And many of the graves have remained untended for a long time. So it is a sad, decaying place, with no pun intended, and it would rarely figure on anyone’s “must visit” list. But it is an important part of Madrid and as such should be recorded.

Enterprising businesses just outside the cemetery

I am not alone in my curiosity of the Spanish way of death. I found this interesting article from the New York Times, written, I judge from the odd reference, in the late twenties.
If you found this interesting, or just incredibly macabre, please leave a comment below.


  1. In America, I am seeing more people going for cremation - a combination of lack of cemetery space and increased cost. I do not see very many ornate headstones anymore. But then, I do not make many visits to a cemetery.

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