Santiago’s City of the Dead

As a child I was obsessed with horror movies and would watch anything filled with wall-to-wall guts and gore. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Ash Williams were like mates to me, but the movie that stands out as a massive part of my pre-teenhood is The Return of the Living Dead. I spent hundreds of mornings, afternoons and evenings watching dead people come out of the ground (yes, out of the ground!) and chase after punks to munch on their spicy brains. It probably has something to do with why I now seek out weird cemeteries wherever I travel to, and why I marked the enormous Cementerio General de Santiago as a priority during my time in Chile.

This necropolis is one of the strangest places I’ve been too and one of the biggest boneyards in the world, with more than two million people laid to rest within its walls. It’s unlike any cemetery I’ve ever been to, and really feels like just another part of the city. There are giant buildings populated by the rotting remains of the dead, and the streets between the tombs are full of shops catering to the throngs of mourners who visit every day. In Chile, the living and the deceased exist side-by-side. Once inside it’s easy to become disorientated, with graves and crypts spreading for kilometres in every direction.

In most sections the tombs are piled on top of each other, with the majority of the headstones decorated with photos, toys, flowers and flags, with a huge amount of paraphernalia for local soccer team Club Universidad de Chile. Some of the graves are decorated more extravagantly, with massive banners printed with photos of the (often tragically young) corpse ensconced within. I’ve never seen anything like it, or been anywhere death is treated in such a way. The graves are truly a celebration of the person’s life, and from walking around I was able to gain some understanding of the people locked away behind the concrete.

Parts of the cemetery reminded me of a morbid high school, with drab multi-story concrete constructions creating a labyrinth of tunnels and rubble. Instead of students and bells, it’s full of ghosts and the eerie sound of the wind in the trees. As I walked through the narrow hallways, pigeons burst from empty crypts, and at every corner I found mourners.

The cemetery is so gigantic that I saw four funerals in the time I was there, and I’m sure more were going on in other quiet corners. Not surprisingly, these processions were also odd, with the caskets opened so that grieving family members could spend one more afternoon with the corpse before their loved one was locked away in a hole in the wall forever. Just walking through the grounds means seeing dead people, so visiting the dead centre of Santiago really is a ghoulish experience.

During the brutal Pinochet military dictatorship of the 70s and 80s, the cemetery was home to a mass grave for political dissidents, with 129 people being anonymously buried in the so-called Patio 29. The corpses have since been dug up, with most identified and laid to rest in simple graves, although it’s believed that untold numbers of innocent victims remain buried around the grounds, never to be identified. It’s a sad reminder of a dark time in South America’s history.

Cementerio General de Santiago might not be one of the major tourist spots in Chile, but it’s absolutely fascinating and definitely worth checking out. It gave me a great insight into the way the locals think about life and death, and reinforced how important family and loyalty are in this part of the world. It’s certainly a creepy place, and I’d hate to be locked in there at night, but it’s also an incredible tribute to dead that provides insight into the Chilean way of life.

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