Monday, 18 December 2017

The Lisbon Dead; O Cemitério do Alto de São João, Lisboa

For no good reason I can’t help feeling slightly guilty for deserting, even temporarily, the subject of (dead) London and Londoners. The idea of a sister blog called the Lisbon Dead has appealed to me for some time but I barely have time for one blog and I’m just kidding myself if I think I’ll ever manage to keep up with two. So I may as well bow to the inevitable and allow myself to stray off-piste; what follows is the London Dead on holiday.  This post is an early, and inferior, version of something I wrote for Loren Rhoads ‘Cemetery Travel’ blog. Loren prodded me into writing a better post by asking clever and pertinent questions and in gratitude I will leave the resulting piece on her blog and use the original version on my own.  

My wife is Portuguese and still has family in Lisbon. When my sister in law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th floor windows.  It was the cemitério do Alto de São João I was told when I asked.  It didn’t look too far away and I promised myself that I would go and have a good look at the first opportunity that presented itself. This turned out to be one hot August afternoon when I only managed to get into the cemetery 30 minutes before it shut for the day. I stole an extra 15 minutes or so after they had closed the gates but I didn’t want to risk being locked in for the night. 45 minutes wasn’t time to scratch the surface of the place; I moved around as fast as I could and took as many photos as my frantically twitching shutter finger would allow but I knew I needed to go back and explore properly.  I have returned half a dozen times since then and spent whole afternoons there but like all the best cemeteries the place is a labyrinth and no matter how many times you visit there is always something new to discover.  In Lisbon’s strong light the cemeteries deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.  The cemitério is a true necropolis, with the dead mainly residing above ground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line the sides of streets that have names and numbers just like in a real town. The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic when plague pits were dug on what was then a hill top outside the Lisbon city limits.

In the 1830’s Portugal had very few cemeteries. The progressive Bishop of Leiria had created a cemetery behind his cathedral in the 1780’s and the English had created graveyards in Oporto and Lisbon but most Portuguese interments took place inside the walls of religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly churches but also convents, monasteries, even hermitages. Only the rich could afford any sort of memorial, the majority of burials went unmarked. Parish churches became overcrowded and unsanitary following centuries of intermural interments. In 1790 in the small town of Póvoa de Varzim the padre declared that the church doors had to be kept open at all times; incense was no longer enough to disguise the stench of rotting corpses inside the building. In 1835 a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots on the town of Lanhoso and an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho.  There were claims that the new cemeteries were built without walls and that wild animals scavenged corpses. The novelist Camilo Castelo Branco ridiculed the idea that the Government “had ordered the construction of cemeteries, but had had no walls built round them, so that dogs, cats and wild boars got in in such numbers that they dug up the corpses. Nations and naturalists alike must have had a rather inflated idea of the size of the Portuguese cats which dug up corpses, and of the good relations between our dogs and the said cats in the task of exhuming them. They would have been no less surprised by the familiar behaviour of the boars who came from Geres to collaborate with the dogs and cats in extracting rotten flesh from the soil of Lanhoso.”

In the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto however the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris or Berlin.   The city government of Lisbon founded two in 1835 in response to the new laws, both on high ground on the city outskirts, Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the Quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, the Heights of St John, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).  Nineteenth century Portuguese society was divided into Conservatives, who were supporters of the monarchy and staunch upholders of tradition and Liberals, who democratic, republican and often bohemian. In death as in life, the Portuguese remained divided and which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views; Prazeres is the final resting place of choice for the conservatives, for the aristocrats, clergy, military and high financiers who were the backbone of traditional society.  The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João on the other hand are Liberals to a man; republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium whose construction was approved in 1912 and built shortly afterwards. The crematorium was bitterly opposed by the Catholic church and even liberals soon proved themselves to be more conservative, certainly in matters relating to burial, than anyone had imagined. The crematorium only became functional in 1925 when an incinerator was acquired from Germany; a bronze memorial in the cemetery, unfortunately one with more than a passing resemblance to a barbecue, commemorates the ‘primeira incineração em portugal’ (the first incineration in Portugal) on 23 November 1925. Once working the crematorium proved a huge flop – between 1925 and 1936 only 22 people choose to be cremated. In 1936 cemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down. It only reopened in 1985, mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. The decoration of the crematorium is remarkable; inside azulejos, traditional blue tiles, show a mysterious ceremony in which ghostly cowled figures march in single file along a crepuscular path to kneel at the base of a sacred flame whilst over the arched entrance skulls, femurs and pelvic bones wreathed in flames and smoke offer a hint of the inferno that almost guaranteed to put off potential clients suffering from religious qualms.


My favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters, Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bull fighting is very different from Spanish – the bull isn’t killed and the important toureiros, bullfighters, are not matadors but the cavaleiros the horsemen (or cavaleiras, horsewomen, unlike Spain Portugal has women bullfighters) who dress in 18th century costume, are mounted on Lusitano horses and whose job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bulls front legs. This makes it possible for the next part of the surreal spectacle to take place; the cavaleiro is replaced by the 8 strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring armed only with a single green cap, and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch called a ‘pega’. The forçada drawing the short straw is given the green cap and standing alone, some distance away from his colleagues, attracts the attention of the enraged bulls by putting his hands on his hips, sashaying across the ring and shouting “toiro, hey, toiro…” until the bull, irritated beyond endurance at this ridiculous display, charges. The forçada has to grab the charging bull by the head and once he has him firmly secured, the other forçadas leap in to help. This link will show you what happens when unarmed man meets furious bull.   

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira (see top photograph for his memorial) died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of the 12th May 1904. Fernando, mounted on his horse Azeitona, was second on the bill fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the quinta of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bulls back but the incensed animal charged, knocking Azeitona’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs and stirrups and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help; the bull was coaxed away, the panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen; it was obvious to all that he was dead, the base of his skull crushed.  In the days before film and video no one could be quite sure what had happened in those crucial seconds after Azeitona had stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that he had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horsemen had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall but with his back turned towards the bull, who had gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the Cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst the aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

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