There are many entrances to La Recoleta, Asunción's oldest standing cemetery, each leading the visitor into a chaos roots, altars and mausoleums. Heroes, villains and historical characters rest alongside unknown civilians in a silent monument to Paraguay's history. A labyrinth full of stories to imagine and decipher where true masterpieces, in styles such as art deco, gothic or neoclassical compete for attention in a total anarchy of aesthetics.
Since my first visit, la Recoleta fascinated and intrigued me like no other place before. I felt like I was invading the stage of a grotesque play starring friendly and lovable spirits, invisible to the visitor's eyes. My imagination ran wild, I was in the most incredible unintentional art installation. Like most of you probably, I'm usually creeped out by cemeteries. They remind me of my own mortality, making me feel small and insignificant, thoughts I tend to avoid. But La Recoleta was different. Death suddenly felt more natural and beautiful than ever, this place demystified it for me.
Caskets are all around, both behind glass doors, and out in the open, some broken with bones peeking out of them, while others are stuffed in niches. During and after the big war, the cemetery was looted and ravaged, as some of the residents of the cemetery were buried with valuable possessions, leaving many of the pantheons broken, naked and abandoned. Today you need to pay attention where you set foot. The streets and avenues that make the site are covered in debris, broken glass, burnt-out bonfires and trees retrieving their original land. In all of this chaos and eclecticism of styles, colors and shapes, the only structure is the one separating the majestic mausoleums and the modest ones into neighborhoods. But in its decrepitness, the elegance and grandeur of the firsts become almost comically absurd. After all, death doesn't care for money, turning us all to dust without judgement.
I came back several times, I wanted to capture the colors and the textures and understand why I was so mesmerized by them. As I walked around, I wondered about death and its rituals, our collective fascination with this mystery. Outside of religion, I don't think we confront this notion often enough, making it a hard thing to accept. How can we imagine the impossible concept of not being? Of loosing everything that is? We have created myths, stories and hypothesis, all trying to make sense of this impossible state, but here we are, still clueless and blindly abiding to old rituals because well, you never know, right? So much goes into assuring that our loved ones "rest in peace" in the hopes that, when the time comes, we will too. It's a comforting thought. We use these rituals to fool ourselves. It's part of the human condition, we have an irresistible need to control what cannot be tamed.
La Recoleta is an amazing representation of the beauty and absurdity of this desperate need of ours to box up memories and preserve what's already gone (says someone who owns multiple memory boxes). We take refuge in the idea that we maintain a link to our life after our body shuts down, a defense mechanism against the unknown. But corpses are forgotten, caskets break, heirlooms are stolen, flowers rot and there's nothing we can do about it, but see nature do its thing. Evolve, transform and reconstruct the world around us, no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. Maybe that's all there is, and we should try to appreciate the beauty in it.
Today, cultural associations and historians are working hard to turn this cemetery into a tourist and cultural attraction, a sort of open air museum to learn about the country's rich history. There are night tours, guided excursions and sessions where you can see volunteers acting out some of the most important figures buried there, standing on or by their grave to talk about their importance and role in History. For me, la Recoleta will remain a wonderful meditative space and photographic playground full of color, textures and stories to imagine.