I have been a little pushed for time lately and not been able to post as often as I would like. When I saw this interesting article about Lisbon’s Cemitério dos Prazeres on Portuguese news site Mensagem de Lisboa it reminded me that I have been meaning to write about the cemetery since I first visited it back in 2014. Since then I have visited Prazeres many times and have taken literally hundreds of photographs. I thought sharing the article would give me the opportunity to use a few of my photos and save me the hassle of having to write the text myself. Translating Alvaro Filho’s article would be much quicker than writing something from scratch, right? Wrong. I thought I would just have to put the original text through google translate, correct the obvious errors and polish up the English a little bit. But the output from google translate is riddled with errors and ungrammatical to the point of incomprehensibility at times; it took me a lot longer than I thought to produce this. Still, it was worth the effort – it is an excellent article on a fascinating cemetery. I just hope I don’t get sued for breach of copyright:
For two decades historian Licínio Fidalgo has been clocking in for work amongst the mausoleums and crypts of the renowned Cemitério dos Prazeres in Lisbon. For the last seven years he has been the senior official responsible for the cemetery which opened in 1833 and today occupies 12 hectares, has seven thousand tombs and around a million permanent inhabitants.
The liveliness of Licínio’s walk is at odds with his sepulchral profession. The jovial 62-year-old is an enthusiastic guide who leads us through the lush cypresses of the cemetery to the bowels of a colossal pyramid-shaped mausoleum. Here a crypt opens into two floors and holds dozens of coffins; a setting straight out of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more gothic tales. Totally undaunted, Licínio gropes through the shadows, flashlight in hand. The narrow hallway, no more than five feet wide, is flanked by coffins that rest on stone shelves. The faltering air supply descends from the surface through a small duct and gently sways a spider’s web. Our path ends in a large chamber; our guide shines the beam of his torch into the gloom to reveal walls packed floor to ceiling with tombs.
Being at ease in the presence of skeletal remains has been, if you will pardon the pun, the backbone of Licínio’s career. Licínio has been working at Cemitério dos Prazeres for 20 years, the last seven as general administrator, a kind of mayor of the necropolis. The geography of the cemetery is a reflection of the living city outside its walls, with its alleys, courtyards, roads, traditional Portuguese houses and even a spectacular view of the river Tejo and the 25 de Abril bridge. This city of the dead spreads over almost 30 acres, houses seven thousand tombs and about a million permanent inhabitants, buried during the two hundred years since Prazeres opened in 1833. And like other any other city it is subject to myriad problems and challenges that Licínio faces with apparent tranquillity, all in the name of maintaining peace – in this case, eternal peace – in the cemetery.
Licínio, a historian with a degree from the Lisbon Faculty of Arts, hails originally from Coimbra and arrived in the capital as a child. His career began at the city council’s Office for Lisbon Studies; professional life among the tombs and mausoleums was purely down to chance. “There was a major restructuring in the local authority and, before finding myself redeployed somewhere I didn’t want to be, I started asking around about other jobs. Then, a friend told me: come here and see this, you'll like it. So I went, I saw and as promised I liked!” he says.
The friend had referred him to the Cemetery Management Division of the city council. In his first 15 years in his new position, Licínio divided his time between all Lisbon's cemeteries, overseeing the maintenance and restoration of the monuments, or looking after students carrying out research for their master and doctoral theses. In 2014 his dedication culminated in a promotion to coordinate the most iconic necropolis in the Portuguese capital. His background in history makes the manager see Prazeres with the eyes of a museum visitor. “This is a building with traces of Art Nouveau and clear Masonic iconography”, he says in a professorial tone, pointing to the imposing mausoleum of Pedro de Sousa Holstein, the Duke of Palmela, a pyramidal structure 40 feet high, Europe's largest private tomb. Built in 1849 on a two acre plot, the mausoleum is a complex structure that houses a cemetery in front of the pyramid, which in turn contains a mausoleum and a crypt. In all 200 bodies rest there. “Outside, here are the Duke's servants,” explains Licínio, pointing to the large plot, “following Masonic tradition, the men buried on the right and the women on the left.”
Licinius points out that the term ‘burial’ is sometimes misused. “These were actually buried, as they are in contact with the earth,” he explains, referring to the duke's servants who lie in the ground, “but those who are in the mausoleum or the crypt, no. There, there is inhumation, a process whose opposite is exhumation,” he explains. This small detail contains a social distinction. The burials, in direct contact with the ground, are simpler and cheaper, because the bodies tend to deteriorate faster. The vaults are isolated from the earth by stone shelves and the coffins are lined with lead or zinc. “To preserve the body longer. Nobody wants to take the risk of being resurrected on Judgment Day with one less phalange”, the historian elucidates. Still in the funerary semantic field, the term “mausoleum” denotes a superior status. Most of the tombs are simpler, built to house the coffin at the bottom and the top decorated with a stone frame or a small chapel. The most illustrious dead, such as the Duke of Palmela, are in mausoleums with the right to a crypt, a basement where you can walk among the dead. Social distinction is also ornamental. The largest tomb in Europe has undergone several changes over the years. The pyramidal format was one of them, as was the retreat of the pediment and the inclusion of new Greek columns. Inside, the Duke's granddaughter, the third Duchess of Palmela, Maria Luísa de Sousa Holstein, hired the Italian Giuseppe Cinatti to produce marble sculptures. Born in Siena, José Cinatti – as he was popularly known in Lisbon– became famous for his set designs at the São Carlos and Dona Maria II theatres. He was not the only Italian to create funerary sculptures for Prazeres. Another scenographer, Luigi Manini, designed the tomb of Carvalho Monteiro, the owner of the famous Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, a merchant so rich that he became known as Monteiro of the Millions.
The tomb of “Monteiro dos Milhões” is the location for another of the cemeteries curious stories; the key that opens the mausoleum door is, according to legend, the same that opened the front doors of Carvalho Monteiro’s mansion in Quinta da Regaleira and his house in Lisbon, on Rua do Alecrim. The eccentricity of the prosperous merchant, who kept the key to his eternal abode in his pocket until his last breath, had a very mundane origin. Carvalho Monteiro made his fortune in Brazil and rumour had it that when he returned to Portugal, he disguised himself as a beggar. “His own sister would have driven him from the door of the family home but his mother scolded her and ordered her to serve the stranger some soup. After the prodigal merchant had revealed his identity, he always took care of his mother, but when he died he did not leave any inheritance for his sister”, says Licínio, suggesting that part of his fortune would have been buried with him.
A curious story, but not like that of the military engineer Aniceto da Rocha and his quadrangular tomb, ornamented with a… dice. “Maybe he wanted to dice with death”, quips Licínio. Cunning, Aniceto designed a loaded dice, the sum of values on opposite faces does not equal seven, like a true dice. Despite the ruse, the engineer was unable to outwit death and ended up losing the bet. Death, however, found Aniceto da Rocha standing. “He seems to have taken the expression 'the military die standing up' seriously”, explains Licínio. The engineer designed his tomb so that the coffin was placed in it vertically. The tomb opening system is also ingenious; a handle is attached to the dice and, when activated, opens the lock, turns the dice and slowly makes the lid slide open.
Not for a moment imagining he was trying to outwit the grim reaper, the prosperous Spanish coffee trader Francisco Mantero donated 70 percent of his fortune to the charity of Santa Casa de Misericórdia and his body to science. Owner of the fabulous Quintas das Conchas e dos Lilases in Lisbon, Mantero suffered from a degenerative disease and was buried in two stages: first, his torso, and then his head. The mausoleum of the Mantero Family is still under the care of the Santa Casa. It stands out for the beautiful Byzantine-style mosaic at the top of the façade showing the image of a Christ Pantocrator, with his hand in the position of blessing. Inside, you can see two tombs, a larger one with the merchant's body and a smaller one, where his head was buried.
There are also those who, whilst still alive, wished to keep their eye on their inevitable future. The tomb of the cocoa merchant José Luís Constantino Dias, the Viscount of Valle Flor, was built in one of the highest parts of Prazeres. “So it could be seen by the viscount from his mansion, almost two kilometers from the cemetery, in Alto de Santo Amaro”, says Licínio. The tomb is the second largest in the Cemitério dos Prazeres, only smaller than the pyramid of the Duke of Palmela. The palace from where the viscount viewed his current home is now the luxurious Pestana Palace and its architecture served as the inspiration for the mausoleum, a kind of miniature version of it. Unlike the Palace, which is now a hotel, the tomb only has spaces for 64 guests.
A plot in Prazeres is not for ordinary mortals. Currently, there are generally vacancies in the plots reserved for writers (I therefore live in hope) and also for actors, agents of the Polícia de Segurança Pública and firefighters. “Although the burial concession is a prerogative of the city council, customarily the appropriate professional association contacts the administration and requests the plot”, explains Licínio. The area for firefighters is the oldest of the occupational plots in the cemetery. It dates from 1878 and was designed by Dias da Silva, the architect responsible for Lisbon’s bull ring, the Campo Pequeno. There were a few victims of the current pandemic laid to rest in Prazeres, a continuation of the original purpose of the necropolis, which was created to deal with the cholera epidemic that swept Lisbon in 1833.
Before then, burials in the city took place in consecrated ground, in or around churches. A royal prohibition of intramural interment in churches, on health grounds, led to the creation of cemeteries. A site on the high ground overlooking Alcântara in the west of the capital, was one of the natural choices for a new cemetery, partly because burials already took place there at the hermitage of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres, next to a holy well whose waters had been credited with healing properties since the 16th century. Today the holy well is a forgotten fountain on Possidónio da Silva street. The hermitage chapel was sold at the beginning of the 20th century and converted into a tavern but despite this the name lives on, bequeathed to the nearby cemetery.
For those who have never written a book, trodden the boards on stage, arrested a criminal or extinguished a fire, the alternative is to compete for a abandoned tomb. Licínio stops in front of one of them, on avenue number 1, under the shade of leafy cypresses. It belongs to the family of Comendador José Pereira Soares. A pinned notice announces that it is considered abandoned and will soon be available for public auction. Article 66 of the Municipal Cemeteries’ Regulations considers any mausoleum abandoned where the current owners or their whereabouts are unknown or they have not exercised their rights for a period of at least 15 years. “After the plots are identified, the administration puts up a public notice and the owners have 60 days to contact us. Otherwise, the tomb is declared abandoned”, says Licínio. The Comendador's tomb will be among the 30 plots that will go up for auction but no date has been set yet. It is a small chapel style mausoleum with space for up to eight occupants. It is well located; the poet Fernando Pessoa was as a neighbour for a few years (until he was exhumed and reinterred in the Jerónimos monastery in Belem). “It's a mixed model,” says Licínio, “which can easily cost 30 thousand euros.” He does the arithmetic in his head, basing it on the assumption that the last one of the same size sold for 26 thousand. The laborious calculation of the value of a tomb or mausoleum, involves the area (not just on the surface, but also the depth), the state of conservation and the typology. The simplest ones, with only one stone frame – the “needle” type – enclose the dead underground. In the “chapel” model of mausoleum, the occupants are interred above ground, while in the “mixed”, as the name suggests, there are interments above ground and burials in a vault.
Despite the light rain, a couple calmly walks their baby among the tombstones. Licínio watches the pram go over a crossroads, one of many that intersect the 52 avenues in the Cemitério dos Prazeres. “The city of the dead is a mirror of the city of the living”, the administrator observes, as he guides us to the viewing point, at the far end of the cemetery, a small patio with an open view to the Tagus and the 25 de Abril bridge. An empty wine bottle suggests that the living have been here, contemplating the sight of the dead. Our guide confirms that, like other famous cemeteries in the world, Prazeres is often frequented by those who haven't yet kicked the bucket. Licínio cites the example of Père-Lachaise, in Paris, where fans make pilgrimages from all over the world just to take a drink next to the tombs where their idols rest, or try to rest, during their eternal sleep. The mention of the Parisian cemetery is no accident. “Père-Lachaise was the template at the time the cemetery was built, and served as a direct inspiration. In a way, Prazeres is a slightly smaller version of the Parisian cemetery”, says the historian who whilst on holiday, usually spends at least one day of his trip touring of the cemeteries of the cities he visits. “There is always something to learn”, he explains. Mirroring itself on a Parisian cemetery did not stop Prazeres developing its own character. For example, the mausoleums in the shape of Portuguese houses, decorated with azulejos on the facade, windows and eaves and threshing floors on the roof; a style of funerary architecture quite popular in the middle of the last century and found only here.
What he learned and still learns about life among the dead Licínio Fidalgo shares with the thousands of people who in recent years have also dedicated a few hours to strolling amongst the tombs. He and Gisela Monteiro, a mathematician who recalculated her career path and now assists him at the cemetery, are responsible for various guided tours that take place at least once a month in Prazeres. These tours are free, the itineraries are published monthly on the on the city council website. With an average customer rating of 4.5 on Tripadvisor , the tours range from an overview of the cemetery to more specialised tours dedicated to the writers, musicians and women buried there, and to Freemasonry. One of the most popular is the Fernando Pessoa tour, an illustrious guest of Prazeres, until he was moved to Jerónimos, in 1985. The poet's mother, Dionizia, and his great love, Ofélia Queiroz, however, are still here. There is also a tour of the most impressive funerary art; the arcane symbology carved onto tombs is enough to make Dan Brown envious - inverted torches, thread cut by scissors, broken columns - no ornament is by chance. “When most of the tombs were built, a large part of the population was illiterate. The symbols help those who cannot read to identify who is there, what they did and even how they died”, explains Licínio. The inverted torch, for example, symbolizes the extinguished flame of life, just like the scissor that cuts a thread. The broken column indicates a person who died prematurely. The beautiful female statues on top of the tombs are also representative: if they hold an anchor, they are Hope; a cross and a book, Faith; while the one surrounded by several children is Charity.
The tour of the Cemitério dos Prazeres ends where it started, in the large courtyard at the entrance. Before we finish there is still time for Licínio to indicate his last improvement: a plaque with the emblem of Sporting Lisbon on the tomb of José de Alvalade, the founder of the club. “Despite being a Benfica supporter, I thought it was absurd not to see a mention of our great rival in the cemetery. There are Benfica crests in several parts of the cemetery”, he tells me. Licínio got in touch, via some friends of friends, with the current president of Sporting, Frederico Varandas and, at the end of October, he represented the club at a simple ceremony to install the Sporting emblem on the tomb of its founding member. All thanks to a benfiquista.
To cover the challenges of managing a necropolis – from maintenance to football heritage – Licínio has just 14 employees. “I really need twice as many,” he acknowledges. Apart from gravediggers, where he could easily take seven more; but it's not easy to recruit. “It's a demanding job emotionally and physically. Have you ever thought about what it's like to bury a dead person weighing 200 kilos?” The remuneration, however, is below the national minimum wage. The emotional costs are also heavy, and not just because of the constant contact with the grief of those saying their final goodbyes to loved ones. Sometimes there are incidents that call for coolness. “One day, a man who was attending his sister's funeral got sick, had a heart attack and died”, recalls Licínio, of the day he was expecting just one dead person and ended up with two. Despite conveniently being already in a cemetery, the second deceased was buried in another necropolis. Faced with constant challenges, the mayor of the immense city of the dead knows that it is impossible to please everyone, alive or not. We wanted to know if Licínio had a tomb reserved for himself in the territory he administers. "Of course not. And if I did, what if my successor had some reason to complain about my management?” he laughs, with the usual good humor, of someone who knows better than anyone, that everybody is going to be dead one day, you just have to give them time.