Sunday, August 1, 2010

Guest Post by Maria Clara Paulino, "Cities of the Dead: Cemeteries in Portugal"

Lapa, Porto

[I’m pleased to host a guest post by Maria Clara Paulino, who was inspired to write about urban cemeteries in her homeland of Portugal after reading my earlier post about mountain cemeteries. Clara is a professor, translator, editor and writer – please be sure to read her bio at the end of the post.]

My first memory of a cemetery is that of a small enclosed area perched on the edge of a high plateau in the small northern town of Vila Real, province of Trás-os-Montes (Beyond the Mountains). Every summer, my father drove for hours up and down a mountain road to stand by my grandfather’s tomb. From there one could see the mountain side falling sharply into a granite gorge and the river below us, meandering through vineyard-covered hills.

Cemetery of Paranhos, Porto

My second vivid memory is that of a very large cemetery in Porto where my brother was buried at the age of 26. A few days after his burial I sat on the white marble slab and told him the world made no sense anymore. When the cemetery was about to close, I walked down narrow paths between tombs filled with sculptures and saw them for the first time as the physical expression of a pain that cannot be told.

Cemetery of Paranhos, Porto

In southern Europe cemeteries are not landscaped areas or rolling hills dotted with small bunches of flowers marking a grave, as is often the case in countries like England or Sweden. Portuguese cemeteries were destined from the start to be “cities of the dead,” filled with granite and marble and family mausoleums like miniature chapels with doors, windows, gates, tiles, and gilded woodwork inside. They are like open air museums, where sculpture is erected as a symbol of loss and of connection with the heavens. Though Portuguese funereal sculpture cannot compete with that of Italy, Dr. Francisco Queiroz, author of Cemeteries in Portugal, claims that in Portuguese cemeteries one finds all kinds of European tomb design, as well as regional designs. And, he adds, “[T]he major Portuguese cemeteries have international significance, especially in terms of architecture, despite not yet being massively explored for tourism. Occasional visitors become often quite surprised with its [sic] artistic and anthropological features, which still remains [sic] almost unexplored by scholars around the world.”

Historically, cemeteries are relatively recent in Portugal. Until mid-18th century, and in some areas even later, people were buried within churches. The tragic Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed the city and surrounding areas, making this practice no longer possible. However, it was only in 1835 that enclosed burial areas began to be built outside the cities.

Paranhos Cemetery, Portos

Portuguese cemeteries are overwhelmingly Catholic. In the distant past, non-religious people were not allowed inside their perimeter; later, they were buried in isolated areas, away from believers. This practice was gradually abandoned, so my father will be able to join his beloved family when his time comes. There is usually a Catholic church, or chapel, close by where the coffin lies before it is taken to its final destination. Not only on All Saints' Day (November 1), or All Souls' Day (November 2), but on any Sunday of the year people buy flowers, candles and candle holders from stands outside cemetery gates. Inside, tucked away behind the porter’s watch post, there are buckets and brooms used to wash the heavy slabs. Since my mother died three years ago, my father spends a good hour every Sunday making sure the marble is washed gleaming white and the vases are filled to the brim with my mother’s favorite flowers.

Wall of Small Containers

Families who can no longer afford a tomb may have the remains moved to smaller marble containers; many of these together make beautiful white walls decora
ted with flowers. Epitaphs are engraved everywhere: poems by famous writers, as well as by anonymous people.


An example of the latter is the one shown here, which says:

You left; in my eyes, the dryness of love;
In this life, full of hardship, space is now saudade*;
All that is left of the sound of your steps
Is the silence of sorrow;
Until we meet, eternal saudade*
From your wife,

*Saudade – a Portuguese word of difficult translation that means a strong yearning for something or someone absent (the absence, whether physical or emotional, is either permanent, of long duration, or particularly hard to endure); nostalgia for something once cherished that can no longer be experienced; a longing for something one cannot quite define and so on. I write about this word and the difficulty of translating it in my blog of July 7 at Writing in the Margins.

Photo Credits: All photographs © Maria Clara Paulino, all rights reserved, used by permission

Bio: Maria Clara Paulino was born in Portugal and educated in Portugal, England and the U.S. She has degrees in English and German Literature, and a Ph.D. in Art History. She has lived in the U.S. for the past seven years and is a Professor of Art History at Winthrop University (currently spending a year in Portugal as a visiting professor). She has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter and is currently editing a 19th-century Women’s Travel Writing Series for the London publishers Pickering & Chatto. In Portugal she wrote articles for various magazines as well as Danças com Gémeos, a fictionalized memoir of a professional woman raising twin girls.

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