I've developed a fascination with cemeteries and have visited many in my travels over the past few years, but I've never seen one like this.
Cementerio General in Merida, Mexico, is a historic and colorful array of vaults, ossuaries and mausoleums, and unique for a number of reasons among the dozens of cemeteries I’ve seen.
Containing more than 25,000 graves, the municipal cemetery occupies nearly 27 acres among residential neighborhoods just south of the city’s historic center.
The cemetery reveals a remarkably rich slice of Merida’s past, containing the elaborate tombs and mausoleums of the wealthy and influential citizens alongside thousands of graves remembering lives of the lesser known personages who made the city whole.
Established in 1821 by the city government of Merida, the cemetery features architectural and cultural designs ranging from simple, colorfully hand-painted burial sites to elaborately appointed cathedral-style mausoleums for the most prominent families of Merida.
Religious imagery sculpted from imported stone, granite and marble are seen throughout the cemetery, sometimes copied from the works of great artists.
The vault containing the remains of former Yucatan governor Felipe Carillo Puerto, who was assassinated by political opponents in 1924, lies elevated at the center of this elaborate burial site which includes his three brothers and several other of his compatriots, who were also shot by a firing squad along a wall still standing just a few meters away.
Among Merida’s most celebrated luminaries buried or interred here are the ill-fated lovers Felipe Carillo Puerto, the former governor of Yucatan, and his lover, American journalist Alma M. Reed. Carrillo Puerto was a socialist-leaning reformer who was much beloved by the Mayan Yucatecas.
While Reed was being feted in Mexico for her work to save the life of Mexican youth in California, who was slated for execution by the state, the journalist and politico met and fell into a whirlwind romance. They soon planned to be married, but Carrillo Puerto ran fatefully afoul of vicious political opponents.
On January 3, 1924, just days before their marriage was to be held, he was killed along with three of his brothers and several others, all of whom were lined up against a wall and shot by agents of the opposition government following a brief kangaroo court trial in Merida. The wall still stands in the cemetery within sight of his grave. He was 49 years old.
Today, Carillo Puerto’s gravesite commands the grandest perch in the cemetery, at the intersection of two roads that still carry city traffic through the cemetery grounds.
Reed, who afterward lived a long life of prominence. longed to lie in death side-by-side with her former betrothed. She was refused the bid, however, and her ashes rest across the road a short distance away in a cinerary identified in red writing.
Like many old, public cemeteries, much of the grounds are unkempt, though municipal workers appear to do their best to maintain the common areas, while more than enough parts of the cemetery are a joy to behold in the richness of the culture they represent.
One of the most unusual and distinguishing features of this cemetery are the open ossuaries holding actual bones of the deceased, including skulls, which might be unnerving for anyone unprepared to discover this eerie feature.
A particularly notable work of sculpture lies behind the Medina Rodríguez family mausoleum. It depicts a woman removing a shroud that covers her late husband’s face.
The original work, “La Dame Triste,” was commissioned in 1879 for the Pienovi family tomb in the Staglieno cemetery in Genoa, Italy. The original sculptor was an Italian, Giovanni B. Villa, and his work was reproduced for this mausoleum by another Italian sculptor, Almo Strenta, in 1906.
There also are whole sections of the cemetery reserved for artisans, musicians, tradesman, ethnic groups and different nationalities.
The Cementerio General of Merida was deservedly designated a Municipal Cultural Heritage site in 2013.
You could spend days, perhaps weeks or more, exploring the colorful splendor of this cemetery and still not absorb it all. It is truly a great treasure of culture, history, funerary artistry and curiosities, well worth experiencing by anyone visiting the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, especially for those who find the living treatment of death in different societies around the world a fascinating pursuit.
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“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
-- Albert Einstein
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Who Am I?
I'm a retired journalist from Hawaii who tired quickly of retirement and hit the road as a slow, solo world traveler in August 2016. I've spent time in 20 countries on four continents. Currently I'm in sunny Merida, Mexico, waiting out developments in the coronavirus crisis before moving on. Meanwhile, learn more about me and my travels at Nomadic Matt, and Expat Focus, and in a great story by veteran Borneo newsman and prolific author James Ritchie, about our memorable meeting in Malaysia, A Confluence of Adventure Writers .
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