By Julie Sheridan
Visiting a city’s cemeteries is a bit like reading the palm of its hand. Social scars and political pockmarks trace the history of its people, till, if you’re lucky, you find you’ve discovered the real heart line of the city. But if you’ve never been to a Mediterranean graveyard before, the whole thing can come as a bit of a shock. Walking around Barcelona’s cemeteries for the first time last year, I couldn’t get over the idea that the dead were buried in walls which were up to eight storeys high and held photos (I found this particularly disturbing) and personal trinkets that had been left to commemorate their life. No grass or soil in sight.
It’s not just a succession of concrete, though. In the 19th century, Barcelona’s architects put almost as much effort into designing the monuments and mausoleums of the city’s cemeteries as they did the façades of L’Eixample’s elegant townhouses. There are sculptures, chapels, altars, crypts, stained-glass windows and an ever-present riot of colour in the freshly laid flowers.
The Poble Nou cemetery:
Down by the sea, the original Poble Nou cemetery dates back to the end of the 18th century, although it was destroyed not long afterwards by Napoleon’s troops. The locals hadn’t been too impressed with it anyway – at the time, it sat outside the city’s perimeter walls, and mourners had to traipse through wolf-ridden marsh lands to pay their respects.
The final design for the graveyard ended up quite different to what its original architect, the Italian Antonio Ginesi, had in mind. Glance at a map (free at the entrance) and you’ll see how the site is split into two distinct sections – the first in terraced quadrants and the second a maze of mausoleums.
The original idea had been revolutionary, for its time, to create a necropolis based on the principles of social equality. Hot on the heels of the French Revolution, Ginesi designed burial niches that didn’t differentiate between rich and poor (or at least, rich and middle class – the truly poor were consigned to a communal grave). Sadly, the emphasis on egalitarian principles didn’t last long. By the end of the 19th century, Barcelona’s well-to-do families had started to commission famous names in the world of art and architecture to design them grand resting places, which would show off their wealth and social status from here until the afterlife. Elaborate mausoleums, pavilions, crypts and vaults all appeared, vying to outdo each other in macabre ostentation.
One of the most famous sculptures is El Beso de la Muerte (the Kiss of Death), which is also the most spine-chilling specimen in the whole cemetery. Crafted in marble, a winged skeleton envelops a young man with its bone-white wings, sucking the life breath from his lips. It’s arresting and oddly difficult to walk away from. Another curiosity is the shrine to El Santet, the ‘little saint’, who by all accounts was a real person. A popular local known for his acts of kindness, he died young, and ever since visitors to the grave leave letters, gifts, photos and flowers in the hope of a minor miracle. Out of everything, I found myself rooted to the spot in front of a typical-looking tomb in a wall. It’s of a 19-year-old girl who died only a decade ago, pictured with her pet dog. What strikes me is the image from a foetal scan, tacked up next to a baby’s dummy. She died, I read, while pregnant with her first child.
Getting there: on the metro, take yellow line 4 to Llacuna station then head five blocks down Carrer de la Ciutat de Granada. You’ll be confronted with a high white wall. Veer to your right and you’ll see the formal entrance, right at the end of Avinguda d’Icària. On the buses: 6, 14, 26, 36, 41 and 92.
The mountain of the dead on Montjuïc:
The cemetery of Montjuïc, or to give it its proper name, the Cementiri del Sud-Oest, sprawls over the southwest corner of the mountain. This one is newer than its Poble Nou counterpart, and was conceived as the sequel. In the 19th century, industrial Barcelona began to burst at the seams, precisely at the same time as the city was struck by countless epidemics of cholera, typhus and yellow fever. Increased demand meant a new burial ground had to be found.
Montjuïc’s cemetery is the resting place of quite a few Barcelona luminaries. Look out in particular for the graves of Joan Gamper (the founder of FC Barcelona) and surrealist maestro Joan Miró, who is buried in a humble, almost plain little family vault. Another tomb of interest is that of Lluís Companys. He was the former president of the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, and was executed by Franco in 1940. His remains have been laid to rest in a hidden corner of the cemetery called the Fossar de la Pedrera, which was originally a common grave where Franco’s henchmen used to dump their victims’ bodies. A poignant spot, it’s thought that over 4,000 victims of the Civil War are buried here.
Again, it’s imagining the human stories behind the graves that moved me most. I had read that the cemetery was originally split across four sections – one for Catholics, Protestants, non-Christians and lastly aborted foetuses – and I struggled to get this artificial division out of my mind as I wandered around. There’s an odd parallel with the image of the unborn baby in the Poble Nou cemetery. These are the things you remember.
Getting there: Montjuïc’s cemetery sits tucked up behind the Castle. It’s accessible by foot, although a bit of a trek across the hill. On the buses: 21, 23, 37, 107, 109 and 193.
Both cemeteries are open 8am till 6pm daily, and you can find out more about them at www.cbsa.es.
Julie Sheridan writes at: www.juliesheridan.com / Twitter: @guirigirlbarca