Our Visit to the First Public Cemetery in Santiago

Headshot of Maggie Peyton.
Maggie Peyton
November 2, 2022
Our Visit to the First Public Cemetery in Santiago

A cemetery is probably not the first place you think of as a center of cultural differences and exchanges, much less an interesting place to take a field trip. Obviously, the second part of the equation is much more dependent on personal preference, but I think my fellow IES Abroad exchange students in Santiago would agree that our visit to the Cementerio General on the north side of Santiago taught us a lot.

The cemetery was established by the country's first leader after it was declared independent. It was created as a place for any person to be buried, and for this reason was very different from the religious and familial burial sites that Chile had seen before it. It was built on the north side of the Rio Mapocho, which runs east to west on the north side of Cerro San Cristobal, which sits to the northeast of the city center. The idea was that it would be away from the people living here, but as more people moved to Santiago and the city grew, it became a part of the city rather than something on the periphery.

El Cementario General (the General Cemetery) houses all but two of Chile´s presidents, and is organized by socioeconomic status. There are designated sections for fire fighters, Italians, reporters, and much more. The entrance to the cemetery is the oldest part, and features many mausoleums, as well as some of the biggest graves the cemetery holds. Something that I found really interesting was that several of the mausoleums in the cemetery were built into the ground—they have stairs that go down into the earth and everything. This is different that anything I've seen in the *many* cemeteries my history-loving family has brought me to.

Another thing that can be found in the front of the cemetery are some of the oldest nichos within the grounds. Nichos are small spaces built into the wall that serve as final resting places for people and families that don´t have the resources or funds to build huge marble mausoleums. My professor told us that sometimes, after several years or if the family could only afford a few years of use of their nicho they are given away to be used by someone else who can afford it. The nichos are in almost every wall inside the boundaries of the cemetery, and there are special blocks on the north side of the cemetery that contain rows and rows and rows of them in structures that are seemingly endless in quantity.

Like our cemeteries in the States, there are several dedications and monuments on the grounds, to victims of the dictator, hate crimes, and people who have disappeared. Famous politicians and artists also have special places on the grounds.

Something different from the States that I didn´t expect to also be present in the cemetery was the graffiti. If you read my Constitutional Referedum, ideally you remember that there is a rich culture of street art and political messages in the streets of Chile. The same can be said of the inside of the cemetery. Insults and praise and love and hate were echoed all over the place, with some graves serving as places to pray for specific things or advocate for specific political change. 

It is probably the oldest cemetery I have ever seen, and its organization is unlike that of any cemetery I have encountered before. There are a lot of plants and trees and flowers, especially in the oldest sections, growing in rather haphazard fashion. Cultural differences and similarities became all that much clearer through this visit. Today, after the Day of All Saints which was yesterday, the cemetery will be full of dedications to deceased loved ones.

Overall, I learned a lot from this field trip and was very surprised by the amount of differences there were from the cemeteries I know in the United States. It is very worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Santiago, Chile.

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Headshot of Maggie Peyton.

Maggie Peyton

My name is Maggie and I'm from Chicago, Illinois (one of the best cities in the States in my completely unbiased opinion). I'm left-handed, could watch Encanto every day, and I am a huge fan of the singer-songwriter Mitski. I study Public Policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago and am excited to learn more about Santiago. I hope to find a community away from the one I have at home and make Santiago my own.

Destination:
Term:
2022 Fall, 2023 Spring
Home university:
University of Illinois at Chicago
Major:
Public Policy
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