In a previous post, I wrote about the pleasures of wandering around cemeteries in London and Paris. I’m not a morbid person, but somehow it’s a reassuring experience. It links us with history in a way that complements our visits to castles, churches and art museums.
Spanish cemeteries are very different to their rambling cousins in Northern Europe, and Barcelona’s main cemetery is a case in point. Located on the side of the hill of Montjuic, it has probably been seen by more visitors to Barcelona than any other monument except the Sagrada Familia and the Ramblas; but visited by fewer than any other, except perhaps the Shoe Museum.
Anyone driving along the coastal ring road will have passed it, but to actually go there involves a convoluted bus ride or an extremely long and confusing stroll. It’s worth it, of course, if only for the fantastic views across the port towards the Mediterranean. You can get the same views from other places, notably the castle, or the mirador. But there’s an added frisson when it’s a cemetery with a view. Somehow the idea of one’s mortal remains being able to look out to sea is an appealing one. A tomb with a view, so to speak.
The most interesting time to visit is the First of November, All Saints or All Hallows Day. It’s when everyone goes to pay their respects to the dead, and Spain being Spain (or rather Catalonia being Catalonia) everyone does the same thing at exactly the same time. So for one day a year, this distant corner of the city is caught up in a traffic jam, albeit a slow moving one. Funereal, even.
In other parts of the world, notably Mexico of course, the Day of the Dead is deeply ingrained in the culture, and is an exuberant and expressive celebration. For the pragmatic Catalans, it’s a day for getting domestic tasks done and fulfilling family obligations. Not around the home; but at the cemetery. Which means tidying up the tombs of your loved ones, replacing flowers, both plastic and real, polishing marble and brass, and generally leaving the grave in a decent condition for the next twelve months. As a result, it’s like being at a house cleaners’ convention.
Never shy about performing their civic duty, people wear aprons and overshoes, wield window cleaner and J-cloths, and generally look as if they’re at home polishing the bookshelves, rather than outside jollying up the family crypt. Not everyone’s tomb is at ground level. Space is tight, so many Spanish graveyards have walls of niches—and not just for cremation urns.
Many blocks of niches consist of coffin-sized compartments, like at the mortuary but for the long term. So just as in life most city-dwellers live in apartment blocks, stacked one above the other, the same happens in death. Polishing the glass on the higher tombs is tricky, so some people bring window-sponges on extendable arms. A handful of enterprising individuals even rent out ladders, to get to the upper levels. It’s a niche market, of course.
If you do go, tact is required and cameras probably best left behind. While for many people it’s as much about commemoration as anything else, for others, it’s a day of grief and difficult memories. Perhaps the most poignant tombs, though, are the ones that have nobody to tend them, or even to pay the rent. They stand out, because they have eviction notices stuck on them, warning that if the rent isn’t received soon, the tenant will be evicted.
Yet again, the cities of the dead emulate those of the living.