Our next foray into the life and history of Barcelona was a visit to the Cemetery of Poblenou (meaning new town), the oldest cemetery in Barcelona, created in 1775 by Barcelona’s Bishop Josep Climent as a solution to the lack of space and insalubrious conditions of burying the dead (often called “cadavers” instead of “bodies” in Catalan) in the parishes within the walled city.
It was completely destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1813 but, since Spain didn’t fall to the Emperor, the cemetery was redesigned and blessed in 1819, becoming a working cemetery once again. It was designed along egalitarian lines, with all burial chambers lined up in quiet, almost serene rows. This concept pleased the merchants and bourgeois of Barcelona, and fell in line with their commercial and political aspirations (what better to be buried beside the aristocracy?) Sadly, in 1821, the cemetery saw thousands of burials due to a cholera epidemic in Barcelona. Many were buried in common graves without a name or a date.
Throughout the years, the cemetery saw many changes and extensions. One of them in 1849 was the addition of a chapel and a pantheon, where important merchants and bourgeois could now demonstrate –even in death– their aesthetics, good taste, social standing and financial worth. The upside was that many hired renowned architects and sculptors for the construction of their mausoleums, which has given the city fine examples of their work. The downside was that not everyone had great good taste.
Because, I presume, of their lack of real estate to bury their dead, Barcelona has chosen to commemorate them in square cubicles piled four, six, and eight levels high. There are kilometres of these cubicles, set into islands with central tombs for the rich. It reminds me of our interior crematoria, although since here they don’t have the little problem of snow, they can line them up outside.
The pantheon, on the other hand, reminded me that mortals are not free of hubris, even in death. Most of the overdone mausoleums are now falling into disrepair because they no longer have people to take care of them. Does that mean that these names have been completely forgotten? One can see the irony.
Why do we visit these places where no one lives? For the eerie peace you can find nowhere else. For the love of family shown through a well-tended spot, or the heartbreaking solitude of others, where moss, weeds, and crumbled stone have taken over. For the stories of lives well-lived or for souls forgotten, but remembered for a few short moments while we read their names and the interval between their birth and their death. These places remind us we are alive and still have time to do well with the time we have.