The eerie beauty of Lisbon’s cemeteries

As I made my way towards the cemetery’s entrance, I noticed, from the corner of my eye, somebody approaching me.  He crossed the road at a hurried pace and addressed me in English. “Sir, the tram stop is that way”. He was a guide, shepherding tourists to the popular 28 streetcar that passes by many of Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods. I retorted back in Portuguese: “Thank you, but I’m actually going to the cemetery”. He glanced down at my camera and offered me a puzzled look. It was the same look Jules had given me moments before, when I told her I was going to take a soothing stroll through the graveyard. Let me try to convince Jules, the tourist guide and perhaps you that a cemetery can be a restful place not only for the dead, but also for the living.

I’ll start with my left foot. The Prazeres Cemetery was established in 1833, after an outbreak of cholera in Lisbon killed thousands. Up to that point, the dead were routinely buried in churches and other sacred grounds, but the volume of bodies and the contagious nature of the disease required a different approach. The solution was to repurpose the old Prazeres Farm, located on the western outskirts of the city, amongst the summer palaces of the noblemen.

In Portuguese, ‘prazeres’ means ‘joys’, an odd name for a farm and an even odder one for a cemetery. It refers to the seven joys of Virgin Mary, which had appeared over the farm’s water fountain sometime in the 16th century. As the legend goes, drinking the fountain’s water would cure a wide range of diseases, but it was apparently of little help for those buried in the cemetery following the cholera outbreak.

The choice of location did not sit well among the city’s aristocrats, which now had a cemetery next to their summer refuges, but they eventually warmed up to the idea. Over time, the cemetery became the final resting place of choice for the city’s elite, quickly filling the available twelve hectares with finely decorated crypts and tombs. In one of its corners sits Europe’s largest mausoleum, entombing the Duke of Palmela and 200 of his family and close friends.

Alongside the narrow boulevards lined with tall cypress trees, rest countless actors, poets and composers. Contemporary personalities such as Aquilino Ribeiro and Amália Rodrigues were also buried here, before being moved to the National Pantheon, where they now rest alongside the cenotaphs of Prince Henry the Navigator and other long-past heroes.

When my sister and I were kids, our father used to take us to this cemetery on sunny Sunday afternoons. We wandered through the graves, reading the tombstones, learning history and chasing cats. We would slowly make our way towards the western edge of the grounds, to enjoy the sunset over a spectacular view of the river.

Jules always cringes when I tell her this, perhaps because she grew in a small town. I imagine that doing this on the small local cemetery, where many of the tombstones bear her own surname, would be a different matter altogether.

On that same fateful year of 1833, a second cemetery was erected in the eastern part of Lisbon, in Alto de São João, near where Jules and I live today. This was – and still is – a less chic part of the city, so the cemetery grew a more plebeian roster of residents. Perhaps because of that it was chosen as the place to honour the heroes of Portugal’s first Republic, including the likes of Miguel Bombarda and José Elias Garcia.

These two cemeteries offer a unique perspective of Lisbon’s past. While the city itself constantly changes, its cemeteries remain motionless. Places are not built over, families do not disappear, stories are not forgotten. Far from the cacophony of the busy streets, away from the urgency of our fast-paced existence, one can listen to the serene voices of those that have all the time in the world.

Verne*

62 thoughts on “The eerie beauty of Lisbon’s cemeteries

  1. Lovely! That was an unusually restful post. John and I used to wander through cemeteries in New York and New England because they showed so much history. We live in a newer area of the country now where graves are not so old. Don’t laugh. I’m aware that the US has very little history compared to Portugal.

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    1. Thank you Anne! Your remark got me thinking, so I went looking for the oldest cemetery in the US. It seems that the honour goes to the Myles Standish Burial Ground, from 1638, where apparently some pilgrims from the Mayflower are buried! It’s in Massachusetts, maybe you’ve visited it already? -Verne

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      1. No, we didn’t see that cemetery from 1638, and now we live far away. Several times we walked through the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church of Setauket, but I doubt there is anything about it on line.

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  2. I’m inexplicably drawn to cemeteries and have way too many photos of them. I even did an early post on the many cemeteries I have enjoyed strolling through. I thought I was weird, but I found a whole lot of people liked them, too!

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      1. You’re nice to check it out … wayyyy back in the archives! The weirdest thing of all is that I really don’t like the idea of cemeteries and don’t want to be in one myself, but I just find them such serene and occasionally quite beautiful places to be.

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  3. Thanks so much and couldn’t agree with you more. These are very restful shots indeed. It also appears to be extremely well-located with waterfront views. Strange as it may sound, there are “cemetery tours” all around the world which aims to showcase just that, the serenity of places less frequented. 🙂

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  4. scary but lovely. Such a contradiction. But i love all the photos and details, especially the cat going into that hole and only the tail swishing out. Of course I probably have to go with someone or friends. Won’t go alone even in day time XD hahaha

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  5. My first time visiting a cemetery for the sake of exploration was in Manila. I went to this Chinese cemetery where the city’s most influential families are buried. Little did I know that my visit coincided with the Cheng Beng (Ching Ming) festival when the deceased supposedly come back to earth and see their relatives. On the other hand, a visit to the cemetery in the Spice Islands reminded me of the turbulent past of this idyllic chain of islands in eastern Indonesia. Thanks for this post, Verne! It has surely brought back some memories of my past travels.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Bama! That must have been a spectacular day to visit the Chinese cemetery (unless of course the dead actually come back to visit the relatives).

      Every time you mention the Spice Islands I bump them up a few notches on the list of places to visit. Transports have improved since the 16th century, but it is still a hassle to get there 🙂 -Verne

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  6. When I was a child, every Sunday I accompanied my grandmother to take flowers to the tomb of my grandfather. So, I’m used to go to the cemitery though people say it’s not good. The tombs built in the first part of last century in the traditional cemitery in my city has also beautiful sculptures. You can see some parts of it under the tag “Bonfim” in my blog: https://belohorizontedailyphoto.wordpress.com/tag/bonfim/ .

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  7. Como complemento a estes curiosos lugares de memórias…sugiro a participação nas visitas guiadas que a Câmara Municipal de Lisboa creio ainda manter ao cemitério dos Prazeres. Vale muito a pena, pelas inúmeras curiosidades que nos dizem sobre o lugar e ritos que aí se realizam.
    Para quem gosta de fotografia, os cemitérios são um mundo de interessantes detalhes, como o vosso post bem revela.

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  8. Amazing photography! I`ve been planning to do some photo shoots in London`s cemeteries but I think it`s a bit too scary and my imagination would definitely make up some crazy ideas while I am there. There is something really special about cemeteries and mysterious as well so maybe finally I will make my way there and challenge myself 🙂

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  9. I can see why cemeteries aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I agree that they can be really nice to potter around. (I particularly enjoyed visiting a couple of the larger cemeteries in Paris on my last trip there!) I find the ornate tombs and weathered inscriptions fascinating, and can’t resist taking photos of them. Maybe there are more photo-taking weirdos in cemeteries than you think 🙂

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  10. I fondly remember visiting the cemetery in Viernheim, Germany, where I spent a year working as an au pair. At 21 it was the first time I lived outside of South Africa, and the well-manicured graves soothed my homesickness every time. And then, years later, another special memory, this time in Taiwan, also involved a cemetery, when two of my language students invited me along during the tomb-sweeping day. Precious memories.

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  11. Ah, I’m glad to come across another cemetery fan. Your photos are beautiful and the history was a fun read. In my case, I try to visit the cemeteries of places I visit because it gives me an insight into the people’s culture on how they treat their dead.

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  12. An excellent piece with amazing images! ❤ Cemeteries are indeed something else. In Slovenia I exclusively visited them in mourning or remembrance of specific people and had no eyes for any beauty. Now in Italy it's opposite: not eerie at all, so much life in them, Catholic or non-Catholic! I saw that you've seen my (at least one) post from Rome's Non-Catholic Cemetery. I have many more photos from there to post, will do.

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  13. Cemeteries can often be very beautiful and serene and if you live in busy city, can offer a welcome respite from all the hustle and bustle. There’s a huge one near where I used to live. It’s completed completely surrounded by trees, so it’s presence is not obvious – entering it feels like stepping into another world. I love exploring cemeteries.

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  14. I enjoyed your post! The opening triptych of photographs is particularly moving. Did you visit the cemetery in the grounds of Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim? We visited a few cemeteries in Norway and we found it interesting to look at the different styles of headstones and the names that were popular but are not used as often anymore. One interesting aspect is the habit of using a small headstone (or natural rock) to mark a small plot (too small for an adult) even though the body was cremated. I had not seen this practice previously. Have you seen that done anywhere?

    I too picked up the habit of visiting cemeteries because of my parent. My mother would take me around the Anglican cemetery in the town nearest to where I (and she) grew up and she would tell me stories about the families whose names dominated most of the graves. I never found it creepy and whenever we were on a road trip we would head to the cemetery when we stopped in country towns. It would bring me to tears to read about lives cut short and to see tiny plots, or instances when many people in the same family died within days of each other. Did you find that in the Prazeres Cemetery, especially among the cholera victims?

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    1. Thank you! That triptych was originally a “fourthtych”, but I couldn’t get one of the pictures to align properly 🙂

      We strolled though the cemetery grounds of Nidaros, but had to cut the visit short as Gabriel was demanding his lunch.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen those small headstones., but it seems like a smart solution for taking up less space, while still giving relatives a place to mourn. One has to admire the Norwegian’s pragmatism 🙂

      Good question on the cholera victims. When I took these photos I didn’t know the cemetery had been created right after the cholera outbreak, so I wasn’t looking for specific dates. But now I’m very curious, I’ll drop by soon and let you know!

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sure that the fourth photo was lovely but I’m glad that it was a triptych. Do you agree with José Saramago (or at least translator Margaret Jull Costa in The Elephant’s Journey) that ‘three is God’s number, the number of peace and concord’?

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