Aviso de Proxima Exhumación
I am one of those people who actually loves cemeteries, primarily because they are often to be found in very beautiful spots, are extremely peaceful and they tell stories; stories of the inhabitants of the village or town in which they are located. Through simple memorials, you can imagine backstories, be they tragic, surrounded by love, or overshadowed by loneliness.
At the language school we attend, Escuela Delengua, various activities are scheduled every day of the week, and if they are of interest, you can sign up for them. This week, Andrew and I earmarked a couple, one of which was a guided tour of the Cemetery of Granada. We knew nothing at all of this place, its location or its history, and as soon as classes ended on Tuesday, we decided to walk up to one of the highest points in Granada, above the Realejo area, where we enjoyed a rather lovely lunch on a terrace overlooking the entire south of the city and the Sierra Nevada beyond. We were due to meet back at school at 4.30pm, so duly trotted back down the hill, a steep hill, to join the cemetery groupies. On the way down, we did discuss the possibility that the cemetery may well be back at the top of the hill that we were descending; a thought that was not massively popular as, when we say the the hill is steep, we mean that it is both steep and quite long.
Sure enough, we set off from school and straight towards the lane the leads right back up through the Realejo skirting the walls of the Alhambra. Oh well…..
However, this uphill walk went beyond the walls of the Alhambra, and beyond the car parks, so further than the restaurant where we had lunch, and upwards and onwards. It was pretty telling on the old legs even for us mountain goats.
However, the walk was more than worth it. The 1st November in Spain is a public holiday to mark El Día de Todos los Santos and 2nd November is el Día de los Fieles Difuntos, literally the day of the faithful dead. We had no idea that this was such a busy time in the lives of the Spanish, and el Día de los Santos is typically a day when families come to the cemeteries to tidy up the memorials to their departed relatives, and lay flowers, and el Día de los Fieles Difuntos is a day of remembrance. Granada lays on additional buses to ferry families to and from the cemetery, florists outside the cemetery gates do a roaring trade, and ladders are available to hire (read on to find out why!).
The Cemetery of Granada or, to give it its proper name, el cementerio de San Jose, is a glorious place. Going through impressive wrought iron gates, my first impression was that this was a Spanish version of Highgate Cemetery. Trees punctuate distinct ‘patios’ and even with the many relatives in evidence, this was a place of great calm, beauty and reflection. Grand tombs, and sculptures mark the burial spots of the great and good Granadinos whose final resting places are here.
There are different types of burial options in the cemetery:
niches (el niches), which are literally holes in walls that surround the patios, and often 5 or 6 tiers high (hence the need for ladders!). To inter the coffin in the higher niches, platforms are used, and then relatives need to use ladders and ropes that dangle from the parapets to reach the memorials stones in order to pay their respects; acknowledged as a pretty dangerous occupation.
Las tumbas which, as the name implies, are the family tombs;
Los panteones, grander tombs with full Palladian-style porticos and columns;
Los columbarios, or cloisters along which the dead are interred.
As we wandered through this immaculately maintained and very beautiful environment, it was fascinating to learn how such places are managed. Individuals and families pay for their burial spaces as best befits their means. Large, affluent families can purchase space for their tombs, and these remain here as permanent memorials. Niches, it seems, are merely rented, for want of a better term. Generally, after 5, 10 or 15 years these niches can be reclaimed by the cemetery for reuse if dues have not been paid. This all sounds rather disrespectful, when you consider that the remains of a person can be evicted from their final restive place to make way for another paying customer. However, I suppose when you think about it with a logical hat on, the deceased may not have any relatives to continue to pay for the burial space, and therefore the niche almost becomes obsolete as a memorial. In cases where the remains are moved, they are taken to a communal burial ground. What struck us as bizarre was that what appeared to be eviction notices were fixed to earmarked niches; bright orange leaflets bearing the legend ‘Aviso de Proxima Exhumación’, notice of next exhumation.
Amongst the patios, there is an area that contains the oldest of the memorials, an area for the burial of children, and a protected statue of El Señor del Cementerio (Lord of the Cemetery), a focal point for mourners and relatives of the dead where they touch the figure, genuflect and say a few words to God.
Our poor knowledge of Spanish got the better of us at one stage, as a small wooded area was described as being an area for the burial of, as we thought, burn victims. Odd, we thought, until we realised that this copse was for the scattering of ashes of cremated corpses.
Rather eerily, in a patio dedicated to victims of war, we spotted on the ground a death mask hawk moth, oblivious to the constant stream of visitors and almost unnoticeable on the patterned cobbled pathway. But there it was, its lugubrious dark cloak a background to the clear skull-like markings. Our own hallowe’en shivers provided by nature.
Cemeteries are restful places, designed for contemplation, and the location of this particular place is on top of the hill behind the Alhambra and as such it commands spectacular views over Granada and the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. From here, we were able to see the sun as it dipped down towards the horizon, casting the entire area in a soft, golden cloak, and flicking through the tall cypresses that pierced the pale blue evening sky. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Palacio Nazari de los Alixares was built here as a centre of meditation and calm, and the remains of the building can still be seen here, in a lawned patio where the present day meets Granada’s varied past up a flight of weathered steel contemporary sculptural steps.
The cemetery is vast, seemingly a continuation of the glorious gardens of the Alhambra. It is a place of great beauty, both spiritual and physical and a fitting place donde Granada descansa en Paz.