One of the largest cemeteries in Latin America has its home in Santiago, Chile. The city of Santiago has a long history and with its prominence in being the capital of Chile, it is no wonder that Cementerio General de Santiago is filled with the final resting places of many political figures. There are many other notable people here and even more important is the story that is told here in regards to the coup and dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Thousands were killed under this regime. Join me as we explore the stones and bones of Cementerio General de Santiago.
Santiago is the capital city of Chile and it is also the largest city in the country. In fact, the population of 7 million makes this one of the largest cities in the Americas. The city was founded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1541. Valdivia named the city Santiago del Nuevo Extremo in honor of St. James, patron saint of
Spain. The Mapocho River flows nearby and the city is surrounded by hills with the Andes Mountains off in the distance. Santiago has been the capital city of Chile since colonial times. Master builder Pedro de Gamboa laid out the plan for Valdivia's new town, which started with a Plaza Mayor in the center. There were ten blocks running from east to west and eight blocks from north to south. They constructed the Cathedral and the governor's house and individuals made their own homes from mud and straw.
About a mile and a half from this city center, lies the Cementerio General de Santiago. This city of tombs is one of the largest cemeteries in Latin America with an estimated 2 million burials. Bernardo O'Higgins was a Chilean landowner and said to be the liberator of Chile. He led the army against the Spanish from 1810 to 1818 when Chile finally achieved its Independence. In 1821, O'Higgins set aside 210 acres or 85 hectares for the establishment of a cemetery. Those grounds have grown into an exquisitely lush garden of ornate mausoleums, emotional memorials and beautiful sculptures. Those sculptures number around 237. The main entrance has the semicircular Plaza La Paz that leads into a gatehouse that is crowned by a dome.
There are a variety of architectural styles that include French and Italian and there is even a Mayan Temple. Some of the mausoleums are as big as a house. The nursery areas of the cemetery are touching and sad with rows of plastic crib-like structures in which toys and flowers can be placed. Some of the family plots have staircases leading down into underground tombs and these are usually covered with a grate. Some of the larger mausoleums look almost like apartment buildings with graves stacked on top of each other.
There are many significant burials that include all but two of the deceased Presidents of Chile. One of these presidents is Salvador Allende who was the 30th President of Chile. He was a doctor before
he entered politics. He founded Chile's Socialist Party. He ran for
President four times as a socialist before finally winning. High
inflation and a coup would end his presidency. Troops led by General
Augusto Pinochet stormed the palace on September 11, 1973. The coup to
overthrow him was successful, but there is uncertainty as to whether he
was killed by a bullet from one of the troop guns or if he committed
suicide. He was initially buried at the Santa Ines Cemetery at Viña del Mar and then moved here in 1990 via a solemn procession through the streets of Santiago.
The cemetery has a memorial for the victims of the regime of Augusto Pinochet who took over as dictator after the coup d'etat of Allende. This is a wall that was erected in 1994 and has two parts. The left side of the wall has 1,000 names of those who were "disappeared" along with the date they were last seen. On the right side are the names of those who were executed and that numbers around 3,000 people. Their ages and dates of death are included. Orlando Letelier was a Socialist associate of Allende's and he was arrested during the coup and sent to a concentration camp where he was tortured. That concentration camp was on Dawson Island. This island has a pretty bad history. It was first used as an internment camp for the Selknam and other native people when settlers to the area decided to drive them off. But even before that there was a genocide against the Selknam people because they were hunters and they had been killing the sheep of farmers for food. And this was all condoned by the Argentinian and Chilean governments. Letelier was released in September 1974 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1975. His past caught up to him when it is believed that Pinochet ordered his assassination. He was killed by a car bomb in D.C. on September 21, 1976. His body was brought back and buried here. There is a memorial in D.C. for him as well.
Patio 29 is a memorial to 100 victims of the dictatorship of Pinochet. These are graves marked with simple iron crosses that have no names. At least, many of them have no names. Forensic investigators have been working hard to identify the bodies and when they do the NN, which means No Name, is removed from the cross and the name is added.
The first monument one sees upon entering the graveyard is the Church of
the Company Fire monument dedicated to those who died in that fire. This was the largest fire in the history of Santiago and killed nearly 3,000 people. The Church of the Company of Jesus was where the fire started. The temple was adorned with gas lights in honor of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and one of them ignited some of the veils hanging on the walls. The fire jumped quickly to other veils and then hit the wood roof. The only exit was the front entrance and that was soon almost an impossible way to go. The victims were placed in a mass grave of the cemetery.
Max Westenhofer was a German scientist and professor of pathology at the
University of Berlin and the University of Chile. He contributed to the
development of anatomic pathology and helped reform the public health
in Chile. He considered Santiago his second home and he died there.
Maria Luisa Bombal was an author. Her most notable novel was "The Last Fog," which was optioned for a movie that was to be directed by John Huston and was to star Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in 1942. Bombal moved to Hollywood for the project. She rewrote the novel with the title "The House of Mist" and wrote the screenplay for the film. The movie ended up being sidelined during the Red Scare hearings into Communism in the film industry initiated by Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. She died in 1980 at the age of 69.
Víctor Jara was a poet, folk singer and political activist. He has a
niche here. When Pinochet took over the country, Jara was detained. They
broke his fingers, so that he could never play again, but mattered
little because they then shot him nearly 50 times and dumped his body in
the street. His grave has become a shrine and he is considered a
Eduardo Alquinta was known to everybody as Gato. He was a folk musician, songwriter and leader of the folk group "Los Jaivas." Los Jaivas was one of the most popular groups in Chile and they were unique in that they combined Latin American native music with electronic instruments. Brothers Gabriel, Claudio and Eduardo Parra founded Los Jaivas in Viña del Mar in 1963. They recorded several songs, one of which was "Todos Juntos." This became the official hymn of the Latin American Summit of Presidents that took place in Santiago in 1996.
Miguel Enríquez Espinosa was a Chilean Revolutionary Leader who was one
of the founders of the Revolutionary Movement of the Left. He served as
General Secretary between 1967 and 1974. Espinosa organized the popular
resistance against the dictatorship. He was hiding in a safe house when
Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional or DINA agents backed by heavily
armed security forces personnel raided the house. He gave cover to two
other men and his pregnant wife and received ten bullet wounds,
including one to the head. He was buried at Cementerio General.
Violeta Parra was a folk singer, ethnomusicologist and visual artist. She pioneered the Nueva canción chilena, which translates to The Chilean New Song. Parra is considered "The Mother of Latin American folk." She traveled the world performing, but the music came to an end when she committed suicide with a gunshot to the head.
The political history of Chile is written across the memorials and tombstones found in the Cementerio General. This cemetery could be considered painfully beautiful. And that is just a little about the Stones and Bones found here.