Sunday, August 21, 2011

Madrid – Same Year, Completely Different

As we know, Tolomato Cemetery was closed in 1884 because of fear of yellow fever.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a cemetery was opening because of another disease, cholera. The cemetery was the Cementerio de la Virgen de la Almudena, known popularly as La Almudena, in Madrid, Spain.

Plans were already underway to build a modern, 19th century cemetery that would be as big and grand as Pere Lachaise in Paris, the model for cemeteries at that time, or the famous cemeteries of Geneva and Viena. The city had decided to move all cemeteries outside of the walls, and the sudden need for burial space during the cholera epidemic of 1884 speeded things up significantly.   While there are other cemeteries in Madrid, this one has grown over the years and is the biggest, with several million people buried in it. It also includes a Jewish cemetery.


Above we see the remarkable mortuary chapel, which is near the front gates of the cemetery (below).


The style is modernist and neomudéjar, which we would refer to as ¨Moorish revival.¨ The architects were Fernando Arbós y Tremanti and José Urioste y Velada, selected by means of a competition.

The design of the cemetery is very complicated and consists of concentric rings surrounding the naturally existing hilly areas. The vaults are built into the walls of the rings, although there are also large free-standing family vaults built on top of the rings.


Like every 19th century cemetery, it is full of massive marble monuments, some adorned with statuary. The cemetery is still open and the custom of elaborate monuments still persists, as we see with this bullfighter.


There were many unusual markers, some quite elaborate. There were also some less formal but very touching tributes, such as this tiny ¨portal de Belén¨ (manger scene) placed at the foot of the vault of a man buried in 2010.  Was he someone who liked to design and build these little works, or did his family simply miss him particularly at Christmas?


During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid´s cemeteries were used by the Republicans during their occupation of the city as a place to execute their civilian enemies, which included conservative journalists, priests and members of religious orders, both male and female. This was to ¨pasear¨ someone, that is, ¨take him for a walk.¨

After the war, the national government repaid the favor, trying and executing the people it perceived as enemies, also in the cemeteries.


But now it´s just another tranquil place, filled with these solid, bleached looking granite markers and dark, still cedar and madrone trees under the white-hot Madrid summer sun, and it´s hard to imagine that it was ever anything but.

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