Cemitérios Históricos: Lugares Arrepiantes ou Museus a Céu Aberto?

Historic Cemeteries: Eerie Places or Open-Air Museums?

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Have you ever thought of visiting historic cemeteries? Eerie places is most probably the first thought that comes into your head when we mention cemeteries. Spaces that generally remind us of pain, suffering and death.

But these spaces, the older ones in particular, have a lot to offer. Here, stories are told, illustrious personalities are evoked, magnificent pieces of architecture and sculpture are contemplated and we can even find real symbol interpretation puzzles.

For the most various reasons, thousands of people all over the world visit cemeteries as unmissable touristic places. The Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, Romania or the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines are some of them.

In Lisbon stand out three fascinating cemeteries from the 19th century, the Prazeres Cemetery in Campo de Ourique, the Alto de São João Cemetery in East Lisbon and the Ajuda Cemetery on the West side of the city. They are part of the historic, artistic and cultural patrimony and are, for that reason, tourist attractions.

You can visit them on your own or join the interesting and free guided thematic visits that are available.

Let’s find out!

Historic, Artistic and Cultural Patrimony of Touristic Interest

The cemeteries fulfil more than their primary role of deposition of corpses, they constitute places of memory. The historic cemeteries from the 19th century in particular are also a place of significant concentration of artistic manifestations.

Theart-lovers in general can’t be indifferent to the magnificent exemplars of architecture and sculpture that are placed in the original space for which they were made. On the other hand, the cult of famous figures, such as thinkers, musicians, writers and artists in general, of various eras, attract fans and curious people to the cemeteries.

The most famous example of this type of peculiar open-air museum is the famous Pére-Lachaise, one of the attractions of Paris that attracts thousands of visitors.

This artistic and of collective memory patrimony can and should be promoted as touristic interest. This wouldn’t be with the intent of disrespecting the memory of those who rest there, in fact, quite the contrary. By studying and spreading the word of this patrimony, by promoting the fruition and conservation of the place, we value and extol the artistic assets and the personalities that are eternalised there.

Thematic Guided Visits to the Historic Cemeteries

Historic Cemetery: Prazeres Cemetery
Prazeres Cemetery

Turning the historic cemeteries into real open-air museums requires investments. The elaboration of exhaustive surveys of inventories, the creation of itineraries that guide visitors and museological centres, among other actions, imply a large multidisciplinary team.

Sensitising the community to the importance of this patrimony as a testimony of collective memory is fundamental to the success of this tremendous work.

In that sense, the free thematic guided visits carried out by the following entities are important:

  • Divisão de Gestão Cemiterial of the City Council of Lisbon – The visits are carried out by their technicians and are subject to previous reservation via e-mail or telephone. Stay tuned to the facebook of Grupo de Cemitérios de Lisboa.
  • Santa Casa da Misericórdia is owner and responsible for the conservation of a good part of the patrimony of the historic cemeteries. Through the São Roque Museum it regularly promotes visits. Follow its webpage.

The guided visits are in Portuguese. However, the Divisão de Gestão Cemiterial of the City Council of Lisbon have guided visits in English.

Do you feel like participating in one of the visits?

Then continue reading our post to know more about the genesis of this functional and artistic urban equipment.

The Relationship with Death

Taking care of the body and of the preservation of the memory of the dead is an ancestral preoccupation of humanity.

Until the end of the 18th century, the relationship with death was very present in the everyday life. Burial within the churches or on the grounds around them was common practice. The places of worship and the resting place were one and only reality.

We can imagine how unpleasant and harmful to the population’s health this coexistence was. ☹

In the end of century were reunited conditions to proceed with deep structural reforms.

The increase in population and the consequent urban growth, as well as the notions of hygiene and health were determining to the adoption of cemeteries as we know them today.

Historic Concept of the Implementation of Cemeteries

Historic Cemeteries: Sculptural Detail in the Prazeres Cemetery
Sculptural detail in the Prazeres Cemetery

The French revolution allowed the implementation of a laic government, independent of the church, a model that quickly spread a bit all over Europe.

In Portugal in 1835, in the sequence of the implementation of structural reforms of the government, among which stands out the extinction of the religious orders, burial in churches was prohibited, causing yet another revolution in the conservative habits of the populations.

The civilizational advances of these liberal models, with roots from the enlightenment, imposed by law were, at first, rejected by the more conservative layers of society. This was the big motto for the famous popular fights of the north of the country in 1846, known as the revolt of Maria da Fonte that had other reasons connected to the division between liberals and conservationists.

However, the epidemics of cholera that hit the country between 1833 and 1855 played a decisive role for the progressive acceptance of the new law, since drastic measures became urgent given the high mortality rate.

On the other hand, the guarantee of dignified burials accompanied by a member of the church for anyone regardless of their social stratum, eventually persuaded the populations. As well as the quick adhesion of the upper classes that had more space for their projects of ostentation of impressive resting places.

The then new cemeteries occupied more peripheral sites and gradually, by the population’s demand, their lands were sacralised with the construction of chapels inside. Ina certain way, the old models were reproduced in the new spaces. These old cemeteries are today in the city centres and constitute real open-air museums.

Historic Cemeteries: Places of Memory, Cult and Reflection

Historic Cemetery: Cypress Avenue in the Prazeres Cemetery
Cypress Avenue in the Prazeres Cemetery

What society can be known without having studied its attitude towards death and its funerary rituals?

If the institution of the cemeteries constituted an undeniable civilisation advance, currently the increasing option for cremation constitutes a new advance. The physical impossibility of keeping traditional cemeteries, that demand a permanent growth, makes the responsible entities promote this practice. The populations themselves are more receptive to this option.

The growing adhesion to this ritual deserves a sociological analysis, a reflection that allows us to know better the society that we were, that we are…

The cemeteries are places where the mortal remains of those who’ve left us rest, but were and are designed, built and frequented by the alive. Through the elaborate constructions and real works of art, here is exhibited vanity, thoughts are differentiated, attitudes are assumed, actions are glorified, personalities and their works are honoured.

All these manifestations, there immortalised, are reflections of the time they belong to. They constitute, therefore, important testimonies, documents fundamental to the study of the most diverse areas of the human sciences, from history to sociology and the arts, from philosophy to psychology.

They are places of memory and not abandonment nor oblivion, places where messages and names are perpetuated. It’s impossible to cross a cemetery without inadvertently reading the names that are a bit all over the place, engraved in stone. In that moment, those names and anonymous and forgotten experiences are evoked and thus, eternalised.

This simple idea was consciously understood in the Old Egypt. For that reason engraving a name in stone or omitting it made a complete difference. In a magical way, it would perpetuate and give life to those who deserved this privilege or permanently erase their memory.

Historic Cemetery: Names inscribed in stone, Prazeres Cemetery

A Curious Fact

The separation between the world of the alive and the resting place of the dead ended up having a curious effect. The romantic literature of the 19th century with its taste for drama, for the exaltation of desperation, pain, grief and death, contributed to a growing vision of death, not as the culmination of a natural process, but as a fatalistic inevitability.
The idea that today many have of the cemeteries as places to avoid because they consider them as tenebrous and morbid, results from the wide diffusion of this literature. To this dramatic view contributes as well the cinematographic production of suspense and terror of the 20th century that triggers fear and takes advantage of cemeteries as a scenery to all types of terrible things.

We invite you to challenge any dark view and embark on an adventure through the historic cemeteries of Lisbon!

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