One of Buenos Aires’s biggest tourist attractions – and one of the first I visited back in 2005 – is the Recolata cemetery. One of Mexico’s biggest festivals is Día de los Muertos. Up and down the length of Latin America, cemeteries and the rites that go on within them are hot stuff. Especially for backpackers at a loose end.
Wandering Valparaiso a couple of years ago, I heeded the advice of Lonely Planet and visited a couple of cemeteries on the hills overlooking the city. Last year in Cienfuegos, when unsure of how to spend the day I visited a bayside cemetery, again at Lonely Planet’s suggestion. With all the melodramatic statuary – angels fainting over one another, lions weeping, virgins imploring the heavens – and photogenic decay that goes on within them, such cemeteries make the perfect guidebook filler.
Cemeteries in Anglophone countries just don’t garner the same inches of guidebook approval. Maybe they seem too muted, too dour and Protestant. Maybe they don’t seem old enough or grand enough, and thus don’t seem mysterious enough.
Wedged behind a supermarket on a narrow street in an area thrumming with bars and restaurants and street art and winos, Newtown’s Camperdown Cemetery has plenty of mystique, it just doesn’t advertise it. Hidden behind graffitied walls, it is easily overlooked by everyone except the local goth kids and their Saturday night candles.
Harking from Sydney’s sandstone days – circa 1850 – Camperdown Cemetery is only a couple decades younger than La Recoleta, but has a completely different vibe. After a girl was murdered here, the bounds of the cemetery were decreased to make more room for a park and less room for the dead. Tombstones from the reclaimed land were deposited higgledy-piggledy within the cemetery ground. Most are now overgrown, many are cracked or crumbling. There’s little sense of order to the place, which might be why ghost (and goth) sightings are so common.
A lugubrious Moreton Bay fig tree holds court over the gates of the cemetery; eventually its roots will infiltrate every grave and overturn every tombstone. Already many of the tombs sit crooked and subsiding. Still, for all the desolation and decay, the details of many of the tombs are in tact, and these paint a picture of life – and how it tended to end – in the Sydney colony. Death by water is a recurring theme, the victims of some shipwrecks buried in common graves.
As the stones crack and shift, those buried beneath them lose their names and fade into obscurity. Camperdown Cemetery evokes none of the permanence of its Baroqueish counterparts in other places, but is all the same a repository of crumbling history in a country that often forgets that it has any.