Chile: Cementerio General de Santiago

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I wanted to see the Memorial del Detenido Desaparecido y el Ejecutado Politico (Memorial of the Disappeared and Executed for Political Reasons) which is in the Cementerio General de Santiago close to the Cementerios metro station.  I’d have liked to have seen Patio 29 also but it is on the other side of the cemetery and a combination of sore feet, heat and a little run-in with the cemetery police put me off……

The Cementerio General was founded, on land that was a Dominican estate,  by Bernardo O’Higgins on 9th December 1821, and he was buried there until removed by General Pinochet in 1979.  O’Higgins is considered to be one of Chile’s founding fathers – he was Supreme Director of the independent Chile 1817-1823, The cemetery covers 86 hectares (212 acres) and around 2 million people’s bodies or ashes are here.  In the 1870’s Santiago’s Intendente (Mayor), Benjamin Mackenna began a public works program which included beautifying the cemetery with boulevards and trees.

Every President of Republican Chile is buried in the cemetery except O’Higgins, Gozalex Videl (President 1946-52, and later, a supporter of Pinochet) and Pinochet.

We went off straight after breakfast.  Not sure why the manservant didn’t tell me to move a bit to the left!  The sign means enter only for funerals:

IMG_6092
Just outside the gate:   IMG_6095
These are the 4 photos I’d taken before being stopped by the cemetery-police.  None of them of a sensitive nature I would’ve thought:
Shortly after I’d taken the above photos, which were taken just inside that entrance, a policeman arrived on a bicycle and gestured that I could not take photos.  He said something about “permisio”   which we didn’t have and had no idea how to get. Perhaps he thought I was doing something commercial as I had my “big” camera…  there were a few (failed) attempts at communication about permisio before he became exasperated and blew his whistle.  Another policeman rode up on his bicycle and this is where I imagined being handcuffed and led away!  Instead, in stilted English this second policeman asked what we were doing and reiterated no hay fotos. I had written the directions to the memorial (the cemetery has streets) on a piece of paper that I had in my pocket.  I gave that to him and he thawed a little but then led us to the memorial with a “come, come, seguir” command.  Once we got there he stood astride his bike observing us!   There are 4,000 names on the memorial and I thought we were going to have to read every one of them before he got sick of watching us and left!
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I don’t know if they were special cemetery police or normal Carabiniers; I don’t know if someone  called them or if it was just bad luck that they came across me and my Canon.   I’ve taken photos in cemeteries and graveyards across the world and have never had anyone tell me I couldn’t take a photo in one before!
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Once he left I took some photos of the Memorial but I felt uncomfortable doing it –  I kept expecting him to reappear with those handcuffs!
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There are 4,000 names surrounding Salvador Allende Gossens (Chile’s first socialist president – Presidente de la Republica 1966 – 1969) on the memorial.  The first stone of the memorial was laid in September 1990 and it was inaugurated in February 1994 with only minor Government officials present.   Below the plaza there are two lower walls which hold the remains of the detenidos-desaparecidos (disappeared while in detention) on one side and ejecutados-politicos (killed while in detention for political reasons) on the other.   These walls have 400 niche vaults but only 185 have been filled.    There is no curatorial note to explain anything about the Memorial but it’s assumed there are at least another 1,000+ bodies which were never found or identified.

As we wandered back to the metro I was careful not to flash my camera about so I didn’t take many photos.   We came across this mausoleum which seems to hold deceased members of the Chilean 1962 World Cup team (I’m guessing at that):      IMG_6115And this mausoleum with a lovely door:    IMG_6113
There are rows & rows, and levels & levels, of wall niches which are rented for periods of 5, 10 or 25 years.  Families can sell or sublet their niche – though I’m not sure what happens to the occupant –  perhaps they squish them in with another relative.  The casket is slid in feet first and then the niche is sealed and capped with a plaque bearing the deceased’s name and date of death.   The date of birth is not always included.

I’m sorry now that I felt intimidated into not strolling about taking more photos.  I definitely intend to go back here and next time with a guide of some sort so we can thoroughly explore all the historical inhabitants.   We might even go to the main entrance!
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21 responses

  1. You’ve got that look on your face in the top one – the one we get whenever someone’s taking a photo of us and we’re saying – are you sure we’re all in it, or – is my head in it (or feet in this case – no they’re not) because it always looks as if they’re pointing the camera in the totally wrong place.

    • I thought you were going to say I had my “annoyed” face on. 🙂 And, people often seem to have the camera tilted at an angle too so that I’m sort of out of proportion – my proportions seem right in this one but yep, I’m missing my feet.

  2. Ha! I was arrested in Eritrea for taking a photo at night. Luckily I was with another person who was at least from Ghana. It turned out kind of funny because it was a digital, and at a time when digital was new. The guys kept looking for film…I helpfully just sat there like a dummy. Eventually they got bored and let us go, but it was a bit of a moment….my first trip to Africa!

  3. The mausoleum where the World Cup players rest looked at first like one of those kiosks that house vending machines, lol. I’m so disrespectful of the dead!

    Seriously, I wonder if it’s because the cemetery has some politically sensitive significance that they wouldn’t let you take photographs. My younger daughter has switched to taking pictures with her phone because, she claims, security guards are always looking for traditional cameras hung around some tourist’s neck, not a smartphone: so as soon as their backs are turned, she whips out her phone and voila, a dozen forbidden snapshots.

    Then again, she’s a lot gutsier than I am. The last time I crossed a foreign police officer, I ended up in jail for several hours until my sponsor came to bust me out. It shook me out of my American complacency (“Oh, it’ll be okay, we’re just tourists”) and made me swear to avoid cops at all costs.

    • LOL – it does look a bit like a vending machine kiosk. I’ve thought that a few times about the advantages of a mobile phone over a camera in “sensitive” areas. I’ve seen people taking photos with mobiles when signs are very clearly posted saying “no photos” and when I’ve not had the guts to do it with my camera. I’m such a rule follower though that even if I had a smartphone I don’t think I’d use it in contravention of signs.

      I hope I never spend any time in jail! 🙂

  4. Well … the good thing is that when you got arrested and it made international headlines, you were travelling under an Australian passport, lol. Which makes me wonder where you would have been deported to …

  5. The niches are really fascinating . I understand the intimidation factor….even here some people take offense at photographers in public places even when it doesn’t involve them…..must be worse when you can’t understand the lingo.

  6. Pingback: Chile: Cerro San Cristobal | Aussie Emjay's Blog

  7. This gives me the chills, I don’t know a whole lot of history but I’ve seen a couple documentaries or based on fact movies about Chile in the 70s and it’s heartbreaking and horrendous. One was about “las abuelas” the grandmothers of babies who were born in jails/concentration camps (I think in Argentina too) who were ‘adopted’ by (I think unwitting) families who are trying to find the children. Oh okay that’s based in Argentina but the political executions in both countries were just awful.
    I am wondering if maybe people rent the niches like we buy cemetery plots–before we need them? and then maybe sell them if they don’t need them if perhaps they want to be in another place or with another family member? or something?

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