In a quiet corner of the Buceo barrio in Montevideo, Uruguay, lies El Cementerio, the oldest burial ground in the city. Built in 1835, this cemetery is one of four laid out on a bluff across the road from the sandy beaches of the Rio de la Plata. Much of it is laid out in a grid with lanes bordered by palm trees, evergreens and flowering shrubs.
Mourners and necro-tourists pass through a triple-arched stone entrance gate into the necropolis to wander through the grounds to admire ornately carved marble monuments garnished with flowers and tributes. Here and there a statue (angel, saint, anchor, crucifix) poke upward through a jumbled maze of bronze, marble and granite.
Here, visitors can enjoy the work of international sculptors: Italian artists such as Morelli, Livi and Lavarello and local artisans such as Zorrilla de San Martin and Belloni. Many of the burial monuments are allegorical: sleeping children, angels weeping, figures carrying young women who had died in childbirth.
In a cluttered grove of elaborate monuments, one simple grave stands alone. The figure of a bronze woman lies procumbent on a sheet, spread over a granite slab. Her body emerges from the smooth surface in high relief. Curled on her right side, she lies in a fetal position; face blurred in a mass of tangled hair. Who is she, this girl whose arms cradle her head, her fingers flexed and pressing gently into tender flesh? A delicate shoulder emerges gracefully from the folds of her sleeveless dress. The hem of her dress flows to cover her heels. Only her toes are seen arched gracefully.
Grass fringing the gray stone slab has dried to a crispy yellow. Debris from dead vegetation encircles her neck like a garland. The only green is the patina covering her bronze flesh and flowing garment. Does she grieve for someone or is she to be grieved?
This is the vision of faceless death. At once peaceful and fearful, it is not grand. No angelic intermediaries link heaven and earth. There are no florid architectural devices. Stunning in its simplicity it stands alone in its haunting beauty.
In a city known for its magnificent architecture, a trip to El Cementerio del Buceo is a fascinating and absorbing experience. Take the bus (cars 38 or 39) or hire one of the reasonably priced city taxis. Night tours are conducted by a local historian.