I love visiting graveyards, walking along and looking at the headstones and wondering what sort of person is buried there. and wonder what their ambitions were in life and what they imagined their last resting place to look like.
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”Steve Jobs
Form of burial is also dependent on the culture. For example, have I read, burial space in South Korea is rather limited so after some years family members let the remains of loved ones be compressed into gem-like beads in turquoise, pink or black. These “death beads” are then displayed in the home rather than a field of the dead. Mongolians and Tibetans have no graveyard to speak of but give their ancestors to the earth and the wind, which means the chopped-up bodies will be placed on a mountaintop for animals and nature to deal with. In Ghana, people aspire to be buried in coffins that represent their work or something they loved in life and so forth. In Germany, we have rather modest if not boring headstones with here and there a life-sized angel thrown in for good measure. I am sure there are other cemeteries with crypts in Germany, but I never saw one and therefore I got fascinated the first time I visited Paris and saw one of the cities of the dead for the first time. From then on I made a point to try and visit a cemetery when on vacation. Additionally, cemeteries seem to be the only one in a city where people behave calmly and there is a beauty in decay. The decay of old ruins, man-made structures and vehicles and gravestones when they gather moss.
So as my friend Naomi visited me last year in my new home Lisbon and with her being an amazing photographer, we got the idea to grab our gear and head out to the cemetery. On the first day we spend too much time in town and arrive at 5 past 5 when they apparently close. But having had a glimpse at the number of crypts, mausoleums and monuments, we made sure to add Cemitério dos Prazeres to the first visiting stops for the next day.
Lisbon’s ‘City of the dead’ did not disappoint and is an exceptionally interesting place to visit. It is called Cemitério dos Prazeres or Cemetery of ‘Pleasures’, called after the nearby neighbourhood (Prazeres) with the same name. Once upon a time there where fields close to orchards, farms and vineyards and were indeed fields of pleasure.
“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.”Terry Pratchett
Then smallpox, the plague, and yellow fever reaped the lands and the cemetery was created to handle the thousands of victims of the cholera epidemic in 1833-34 overseen by Convento de Boa Morte (Good or Gentle Death Convent). By 1839, wealthier families began to build monuments and gave the shape and look of today’s city of the dead. Many important names and figures of Portuguese arts and politics are buried here and I heard there are also tours you could join if you like more information about that…
We entered the cemetery without much plan and just got lost between the cypress trees and the sound of the city faded and made space for tranquillity and contemplation. Both of us just started getting lost in thought and busy with our cameras. We wordlessly pointed out peculiar signs on the graves, symbols and special features on the mausoleums.
Monuments seemed to have been shaped after the death of a person rather than depicting their life. There are countless Freemasons signs, bat-winged hourglasses, concrete tree stumps, crosses and angles.
In some of the crypts, we found chairs and picture frames like little living rooms where you sit with your family and tell them about your week. Just that your family is not occupying chairs like yourself but laying on shelves to the left of you in their individual lace and velvet-clad casket.
Some of these living rooms started to be forgotten though and the windows are broken and the caskets have fallen from their now rotten shelves. Some even gave glimpses to their occupants. Something I was not entirely prepared for.
The dead have the best view of The Sanctuary of Christ the King, Targus River and the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge and after walking through endless ‘streets’, meeting the local gang of cats and peeking through one and the other window, we spend a bit more than 2 hours in the land of the departed and decided it is time to finally go back to the living for some lunch.
Naomi and I agreed, that it was well worth coming back here and if you would like to see how she experienced the day, she wrote about it here along with her amazing photos.
Let me know what you think about the pictures or if you have been here before and what your experience was.