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The Dead Tour — 2003

30 October 2003

Nobody knows where all the bodies are buried: this is a very old city, and many of the early cemeteries have simply disappeared. Several skeletons were discovered in the Centro Historico during street repairs in 2002. Alameda Park was once the hanging ground and where the Inquisition burned heretics. How many heretics and “ordinary, decent criminals” are buried in the park is anyone’s guess.

Cemeteries were nationalized during the Reforma. Among other things, burials within churches were outlawed, but just about any church built before the 1850s will have a few graves in the walls. Hernan Cortés is one of the few people immured in a church wall in the 20th century. According to provisions in his will, Cortés’ remains were sent to Mexico and immured in the Hospital de Jesus chapel (Rep. de El Salvador & Pino Suarez) in 1547. During the anti-Spanish riots in 1836, Lucas Alemán, the conservative historian and diplomat (then the Hospital administrator), hid the remains. Alamán sent a letter to the Spanish Embassy, giving the location of … uh, “Hernando’s Hideaway”. The letter was misfiled, and not discovered until 1946 (slow postal service is nothing new in Mexico!). Cortés was reburied in the wall over the altar, first and last person buried in chapel.

When restrictions on the church were loosened in the 1990s, San Juan de Dios (across from the Alameda — the church attached to the Franz Meyer museum) began to offer burial space in their crypt. For those who want a permanent residence here, sorry, I don’t know the cost. The “Jardin de recurerdos” in Tlaplanta — you can’t miss the big “Praying Hands” (they’re lit at night) if you’re taking the bus north – does a lively business. If interested, you can check out their website at www.jardinderecureros@aventel.com.mx.

Iglesia San Fernando (Plaza San Fernando, at Guererro and Orozco y Berra) was the best place to be dead in the 19th century. Maximilliano von Hapsburg was unwanted in Mexico, dead or alive. Benito Juarez has Maximilliano’s space. When Juarez was buried in San Fernando in 1872, General Miguel Miramon (who had been executed alongside Maximilliano) was disinterred by his snobby pro-clerical, anti-Republican relations and reburied in more conservative Puebla. Fittingly, the remains of the great Republican hero and hero of Cinco de Mayo, Ignacio Zaragosa, were transferred from Puebla to Miramon’s former grave.

No one knows whom – if anyone – is buried into the niche marked with Isadora Duncan’s name and dates. All that’s known is that it isn’t Isadora Duncan. There are no recorded burials at San Fernando in 1927 (Duncan’s death date, and the date on the tomb. Duncan was killed in an accident in the south of France and is buried in Paris’ Pere Lachase). 1927 was the height of anti-clerical repression in Mexico. I’ve speculated that a bishop or other cleric is buried there under the name of the famous atheist and radical.

Most burials since the 1850s have been in Civil Panteones. There are exceptions: Leon Trotsky is buried in his yard (as is the American communist killed during Siqueros’ attack — his name escapes me now). The Monument to the Revolution is sort of the Westminster Abbey of Revolutionary Mexico — the columns include the cremated remains of Madero, Carrenza, Calles, Lazaro Cardenas and Pancho Villa (all but Pancho’s skull — Villa was originally buried in Parral, but someone dug him up and stole his skull in 1929). There’s a space reserved for Zapata, but his survivors (and followers) maintain that the Revolution betrayed him, and his tomb in Cuatla is still zealously guarded.

Panteon Delores is the best known of the Civil Panteones — it’s on the edge of Chapultepec Park, accessible by Ruta from Constituyentes or Tacubaya Metros. Delores includes the Rotonda de los Personas Illustres (formerly “Hombres Illustres”, but Mexico strives for equality, and who are more equal than the dead?), mostly of interest to specialists in Mexican political history. However, the illustrious personages buried there include David Alvaro Siqueros (who designed his own tomb), Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Frieda Kahlo (or what remains of Frieda—like Santa Ana, Maximilliano, Alvaro Obregon and Pancho Villa, she was missing a few pieces) may be joining them soon. Taking the Metro to Panteones (line 2) is the easiest way to visit the “foreign” Panteones — Español, Alemán, Monte Sinai (the main Jewish Panteone) and the Americano. Joan Vollmer, William S. Burrough’s unfortunate wife was buried here and forgotten. The “beat” writer and drug addict (“Queer” and “Junkie” were both written here) shot her between the eyes, supposedly during a game of “William Tell” involving a bottle of mescal and a pistol. Burroughs fled the country while out on bail, and never paid his late wife’s maintenance fee. Vollmer’s remains were later transferred to an unmarked niche in the back wall.

Panteone Frances has a certain cachet. Maria Felix, the Mexican film star of the 40s and 50s, is buried here. Felix had left the bulk of her estate to her much younger male companion. Her relations insisted the 85-year old actress had met with foul play, so up she came. Her exhumation didn’t quite draw the mob her state funeral did, but drew a respectable crowd (I am fortunate enough to have been one of the crowd outside, but that’s only because my bus was stuck in traffic). The quintessential Mexican – and actress – that she was, Maria Felix was not about to let a little thing like mortality interfere with one final appearance. Any “Legeria” ruta from Tacuba passes the entrance.

Panteone Sanctorum is a block from Cuarto Caminos Metro (but cross the street at the pedestrian bridge, unless you’re dead-set on taking up residence there!): it’s one of the older, more traditional cemeteries, with some fine homemade tombs and touching memorials to the unforgotten dead. San Lorenzo Tezonco (Periferico at Tlahuac) is further out from the city, but also easily reached by public transport. Any “Tlahuac” bus from Tasqueña Metro will stop there, and it’s the end of the line for the trolleys. There’s also a furniture market (not including caskets, though you can buy them second-hand on the street in Tepito), moving truck and taxi sitio there.

For the hard-core urban dweller, the Gayossa funeral parlor overlooking Parque Sullivan includes a high-rise, condominium cemetery: look for the stained glass windows. The side streets are home to the funeral district, with services available to fit any budget or style. Naturally, there are several florists in the vicinity. And snack carts – Mexicans love to sit and chat with each other, even if the person they’re visiting isn’t talking much. Visitations go on for hours and hours and hours. And – given the national propensity for creative capitalism (and food) — at least a few funeral parlors sell decent antiojitos.

There is at least one government owned parlor for civil servants (most civil service contracts include the right to a dignified burial) – given the slow processes of bureaucracy in this country, there’s a fairly good chance the person who is supposed to stamp whatever essential form you need is the guest of honor there tonight. Contrary to popular belief, it has never been an Article of Faith that Catholics had to be buried (I only know this because my very Catholic family checked with their bishop). Cremation was the standard practice in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and remains (no pun intended) common. As in several European countries, bodies are not permanently buried. It’s hard to find “living space” here in the City: cremation is accepted, and even encouraged. A few years ago, the Green Party ran on a platform that included non-polluting crematoria. One Delegacion is now offering a cremation and urn package below cost as a way to preserve more green space that might otherwise be used for burials.

It’s a bit gruesome to consider, but a friend of mine, from a large and old family in Guanajuanto State recently spent a weekend with the relatives: digging them up. The family plot was full, so great-granddad, ancient aunts and various ancestors had to make way for the present generation. Not my idea of a family outing: what do you say to these relations anyway: “Abulito, you’ve lost a lot of weight since I saw you last!”?

My friend’s family pays for perpetual care, but how long is perpetual? I found – buried in la Prensa’s police report section — an interesting little item earlier this year. A witch doctor/private eye (it’s common to pursue two careers at a time, and at least these two are somewhat related – unlike, say, my travel agent, whose day job is as a gynecologist) was arrested on unrelated charges while transporting two freshly disinterred human skulls. He claimed in his own defense that he had paid good money for them at Panteone Delores (200 pesos a head, if you must know).

If the survivors do not make perpetual-care arrangements, the remains are periodically disinterred and supposed to be cremated. In Guanajanto, minerals in the soil naturally mummify bodies. Until recently, the interesting looking ones ended up in a museum. If you forget to pay the cemetery bill, mummy-dearest might end up in one of the Republic’s more macabre tourist attractions.

The folk belief that the dead continue their daily routines is still strong. I once spent an afternoon wandering through a panteon in Villahermosa, and couldn’t help but feel sorry for the well-tended tomb of a housewife, which included a mop and pail (so much for eternal rest!). I guess it’s not all work and no play for the dead, however. If the departed continue their routines in the afterlife, that cemetery must be a pretty lively place — other graves included guitars (either the “real thing” behind glass, or stone guitars by way of a grave marker), drums and even a pair of blue suede shoes (marking a rock n’ roller’s grave). The Huastaca people sometimes complain about their dead relatives who come back to raid the fridge, drink up all the beer, and party all night.

In Mexico, there is too much life to let a little thing like mortality interfere. Besides, your passport expires when you do – if you think acquiring an FM-3 or extending your visa is exasperating, try leaving the country in a box. The Hapsburgs had a hellacious time getting dear old Max back (the Queratero embalmer had made a little mistake originally, and Max turned bright green. Lucky for him, the slow process of Mexican bureaucracy gave him the time to guild the ex-Emperor’s body, giving him, if not a lifelike look, at least a healthy looking tan color.

Too bad he couldn’t do anything about the missing eyeball. Firing squads – especially 19th century firing squads – do quite a bit of damage to the human body besides just killing you. Maximilliano’s eyeball was knocked out of the socket and never was found. The embalmer didn’t think anyone would notice when he used a brown glass eye, but, alas, the Hapsburgs were a strange family, and Max’s mom wanted one last look at her boy’s baby blues).

An elderly friend of mine living out her remaining days in a downtown hotel had a neighbor with a slightly different plan. He was a Venezuelan with terminal AIDS, and his last wish was to die in Mexico City. Just before Christmas, he did. Between an airport strike in Venezuela and Mexican bureaucracy, there was no way he was leaving (I thought of cremating him and stuffing the ashes in a piñata, but I’m a die-hard practical gringo). As far as I know, he’s still here, though not in the hotel. Venezuelans throw good parties (my friend, being British, was reluctant to go – apparently one does not wear black to parties in Britain) at home. In Mexico, where death is no barrier, the good times can go on for … however long you want, apparently. This is a friendly place, and we welcome visitors, dead or alive.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 May 2007 6:41 pm

    Richard,

    Great article. Thanks for sharing the link.

  2. federico miramon permalink
    8 August 2008 4:35 pm

    Would like to know the exact location of the burial of gen.miramon a ancestor of mine,

  3. C.R. Jones permalink
    15 October 2008 9:00 pm

    Fantastic article, happy to find it as I looked for material regarding the monuments in the Rotonda.
    I photographed there a few years ago, my spanish-fluent daughter staved off the guys who were looking for a bribe to permit my photos. The dogs just looked for a handout. Is there any publication about the monuments? My interest comes from my participation in the Association for Gravestone Studies (www.gravestonestudies.org) I also photographed from outside the cemetery at S.Fernando. It was closed for “renovation” Is it open again now? We also felt a bit uneasy about visiting the larger Panteon Delores where at least one person was apparently living in a sheet metal monument with a newer north addition. How safe is it to wander around? Should we hire a guide-guard? Is that what all those guys were hanging around for at the front gate?

  4. 29 April 2013 7:41 pm

    We stumbled over here coming from a different website
    and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so
    now i’m following you. Look forward to going over your web page for a second time.

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