The Cemetery as a City

El Mercurio, VD June 1

A morbid headline floated nearly inconspicuously over a picturesque snapshot of Validivia on the cover of this Saturday’s VD: “Cementerios en Chile: El espiritú cultural de cada pueblo” [Cemeteries in Chile: The Cultural Spirit of Each Village]. Perhaps this headline shouldn’t come as a surprise: isn’t Latin America supposed to be cozy with death, all dancing skulls and colorfully decorated tombstones? What’s curious about Paula Donoso Barros’s article is her argument for making cemeteries more a part of the community, as she states in her introduction: There are 320 cemeteries throughout Chile. Large ones like General de Santiago or small ones like Villa O’Higgins, they are all equally the reflection of their community. A short-lived foundation left as their legacy an interest in creating, with [the cemeteries], study material which teachers could work on with their students or for a tourist to appreciate [the cemeteries’] patrimonial value. Register renowned and popular personages, architectures and landscapes, oral traditions and artworks, up to the most precarious. Because the (hi)story of life is in these singularities; the historic footprint of a community.

Among her examples, Donoso Barros highlights the Arthurian Cementerio de Aucar, the hectic hillside Cementerio 1 of Valparaíso, and the Cemetery at the Open City.

Capilla y Cementerio

Chapel and Cemetery at the Open City, Ritoque, Chile


I’ve never felt comfortable photographing the Cemetery, so instead I give you a view of the neighboring Chapel.

Donoso Barros brings up an essential question about life in a community: what’s our relationship with the spaces occupied by our dearly departed? I grew up in the suburbs of South Florida and cemeteries just didn’t jibe with my town’s urban planning. Though Coral Springs has an infamous sign restriction, a cemetery or two were never part of the plan and will likely never be at this stage (which is odd in a state commonly known as “God’s waiting room”).

When my South Florida-born niece and nephew came to Chile in March they were old enough to understand all the quaint landmarks dotting Curicó, the small town where my parents are from. From the plaza, to the jail, to the outdoor market Curicó has it all. Including two cemeteries, right across from the soccer area and down the street from a few schools. Just like those “ye olde towne” rugs for kids to zoom their toy cars on, it seems like a city should have these typical features. Sure a cemetery isn’t on the top of my list of places to hang out, but when it’s part of your town it becomes part of your route: pick up some milk and paper towels, leave flowers at the cemetery, drop off dry cleaning, etc.

Donoso Barros’s article underscores a key debate surrounding the Open City: is it a city? Many dissertations, theses, and essays have been dedicated to this topic mostly since it remains an unresolved matter. The quick answer: yes and no. It’s an architecture studio on a mass scale (670 acres) and run like a co-op, with limited access to outsiders. Though there’s no pavement or streets, there are numerous structures typical of a village: houses, lodges for visitors, water tanks, fields for recreation, a chapel, and a cemetery. I never gave much thought to this cemetery, it just seemed like another eccentric feature to this unorthodox project. Part of the School’s longevity is due to their closeness: the faculty and students operate more like a family than a typical school of architecture. And among those faculty members and students who live at the Open City I’m sure this bond is even deeper. Therefore the idea of a cemetery always seemed like an extension of this friendship. The faculty members buried here are simply remaining part of the project.

Yet I can’t help but think of a text I read last week in Viña del Mar, site of the School’s campus. A couple of years ago Judith Calder traveled from Oslo to spend a year researching the School. In one of her interviews about the Open City a faculty member stated his argument for the site’s status as a city: it contains a cemetery. And now in light of Donoso Barros’s article this statement resounds even more for me.  If a cemetery is an intrinsic part of a community, the other features typical of a human habitat just don’t seem to matter. I always new the School was playing with the notion of a city when they developed their co-op in Ritoque over forty years ago; yet I never considered the transcendental filters to that perspective until now.

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