Recoleta Cemetery is no ordinary cemetery. Consistently ranked as one of the top three attractions in Buenos Aires, it houses 4700 mausoleums and 30,000 souls. The cemetery was established in 1822 and its labyrinth of narrow passageways contain a treasure trove of elaborate marble crypts and stunning sculptures. Recoleta is the final resting place of many of Argentina’s who’s who, including the country’s most famous first lady Eva Perón. And, it’s loaded with stories—tragic, bizarre, disturbing, heartwarming tales of the dead. Dominique, our guide from Free Walking Tours Buenos Aires had me enthralled. I bring you a few choice tales from the graveyard…
The girl who died twice: Rufina Cambaceres (1883-1902)
It was at Rufina Cambaceres’ 19th birthday party when a friend told her that her mother was having an affair with Rufina’s boyfriend. Distraught, Rufina goes to her room where she is later found dead—a heart attack is suspected. She is placed in the family plot at Recoleta Cemetery. That night, the groundskeeper hears voices coming from the mausoleum. Investigation the next day finds the coffin moved several inches. When opened, scratches are found on the inside of the coffin and all over Rufina’s face and neck. The poor woman was mistaken for dead and tragically suffered a horrible second death trying to escape.
The girl and her faithful companion: Liliana Crociati de Szaszak (1944 – 1970)
Liliana Crociati de Szaszak was in Innsbruck, Austria on her honeymoon when an avalanche swept over her hotel and she died of suffocation. Rumour has it that she and her dog Sabú were so attached that he died in Buenos Aires at the same time. The life-size statue of Liliana, supposedly in her wedding dress, is strikingly beautiful. Interestingly, her beloved dog stands next to her; no one is quite sure what happened to her hubby.
A grudge for eternity: Salvador Maria del Carril and Tiburcia Domínguez
An enormous mausoleum commemorates the life of Salvador María del Carril and his wife Tiburcia Domínguez. The weird thing is, the busts depicting the two have their backs to each other. The story goes that del Carril, an important figure in Argentinian politics, was outraged by his wife’s spending. He got so angry that he published a letter in major newspapers advising merchants that he’d no longer be paying for any of his wife’s expenditures. That didn’t go over well with Tiburcia who published her own letter describing what a horrible man her husband was and vowing she’d never speak to him again. Although they stayed together, she apparently kept her promise and didn’t speak to her husband for the remaining 20 years of his life. Tiburcia lived another 15 years, throwing lavish parties. Before she died in 1898, she requested that her bust look away from her husband. Ouch…holding a grudge for eternity can’t be good.
The body that was in transit for 24 years: Eva Perón (1919 – 1952)
The tomb of Eva (Evita) Perón, Argentina’s most beloved and controversial first lady, is the star attraction at Recoleta Cemetery, and the story of her journey to Recoleta is long, convoluted and macabre. This is an abbreviated version. Eva’s life was cut short by cancer at age 33. Before a monument could be completed to display her body, her husband, President Juan Perón, was overthrown in a military coup and fled the country. The new regime wanted to erase all references to Peronism and this included “getting rid” of Eva’s embalmed body. For almost 20 years, she was hidden away in places near and far—from a storage container labeled radio parts at a Buenos Aires military intelligence office, to a graveyard in Milan, Italy under an assumed name.
In 1971, Juan Perón, living in Spain, struck a deal with Argentina’s new leader to have his citizenship restored and the remains of Eva’s body brought to his residence in Madrid, which he shared with his third wife Isabel. Apparently, Peron had no place to put the coffin so he stored it in his dining room, frequently opening it to look at his well-preserved late wife.
Perón returned to power in Argentina in 1973 but left Eva’s remains in Madrid. In less than a year, he died of a heart attack and Isabel succeeded him. She was ill-equipped for the role but made a clever move to boost her popularity by repatriating Eva’s body. It was placed next to the deceased leader in a crypt in the presidential palace. This didn’t go over well with Eva’s family (the Duarte’s) who did not want her lying next to Isabel once Juan’s third wife passed away. A military junta solved that problem when Isabel was overthrown in 1976 and Eva’s body was quietly turned over to the Duarte family.
Finally, after 24 years in transit, Eva reached her final resting spot in the family crypt at Recoleta Cemetery. The tomb is unpretentious compared to others at Recoleta but crowds swarm around it. She’s safe now, two stories down, secured under two trapdoors and three plates of steel.
The ugly duckling tomb: Gen Tomás Guido (1788 – 1866)
After all those disturbing stories, I’ll end with a nice one. The tomb of Tomás Guido, an important general in the Argentine War of Independence, is unlike any other at Recoleta. It is a rough-looking thing made of irregular shaped rocks. His son, poet and politician Carlos Guido y Spano, said: “Anyone can hire builders and artists. Out of respect for my father, I’m building this tomb myself, one rock at a time.”
In case you’re wondering, that green one next to the general’s belongs to Admiral Guillermo Brown, an Irish-born admiral and founder of Argentina’s navy. His tomb is unique, featuring marine-inspired carvings. The green colour is in honour of his Irish heritage.
Here are a few more photos from Recoleta Cemetery: