Burial grounds, places full of life | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


Burial grounds, places full of life

Centres of ritual, pathways lined with monuments, resting places, and places for reflection. Burial grounds are, paradoxically, places full of life that help us better understand our society's past.

Unearthing history

Today's uncontrolled urban growth often encompasses cemeteries, but originally these cemeteries were located out of town because of the outbreaks of cholera to which large cities were prone, and where uncontrolled and chaotic burials led to the contamination of the water supply.
As cemeteries became places with their own character, associated with the afterlife and the great mystery of life, their popularity took off, so much so that in Europe, and in Catalonia, they pay homage to our history and are one of the most graphic ways of travelling back through history. The rites and traditions that have surrounded our relationship with death for centuries, epitomised monumentally in these cemeteries, help us to understand and reconstruct the origins of our society.
Cemeteries became places of rest for the dead, be that anonymously in a common grave, or in impressive pantheons for illustrious families. The origin of the word cemetery is the Greek koimeterion, and its meaning, 'bedroom, resting place', establishes the association with a place of repose. It was the culture, however, that determined the specific symbolic rites that would be applied to the deceased, and these varied greatly according to the person's social status and the God they worshipped. It can be said, therefore, that the act of burial was very closely associated with the rites and customs of the period in question.
From this point of view it is no surprise that cemeteries should have become great archives for historians. Thanks to the remains found amongst their stones we have been able to uncover our past. They constitute a source of information and they have facilitated the reconstruction of our history and cultural past because within them rest renowned personages who have left their mark on our character. We find them around the whole of Catalonia and they enable us to delve into histories that can not leave you unmoved.
Santa Eulalia d'Erill la Vall (Quim Roser / Departament de Cultura)

The cemetery as a homeland

The poet and novelist, Salvador Espriu, enjoyed a happy childhood at his family home in Arenys de Mar, where he lived with four other siblings. His life, however, was marked by death. His own death seemingly approached at the tender age of nine when he was confined to bed for three years, as well as the deaths of others when, during his adolescence, he lost two of his siblings. And death loomed in a figurative sense also when, on 18 July 1936, after having spent hopeful years at university, all his dreams were buried under the ruins of the civil war.

Salvador Espriu's writings made the cemetery in Arenys de Mar a literary space when, in 1946, he penned the verses of the poem, Cementiri de Sinera, 'Sinera' being Arenys spelt backwards with an 'i' instead of a 'y'. In this way Espriu created a mythical world where he could take refuge and find peace after the war, aware of how, in the cemeteries, the days are gone for ever.
Arenys de Mar cemetery (Bob Masters / Departament de Cultura)

Beyond the literary myth

Part of this poetic attraction is the sculptural and architectural wealth of this cemetery that make it one of the most attractive ones in Catalonia. It has tombs of great artistic value and, furthermore, it reflects the town's growth from a simple seaside port to the place of residence for those who had done well in America, and the industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Arenys' cemetery is a fine example of Mediterranean coastal cemeteries. Its legacy is to be seen in its architectural works of art and its sculptures: the tomb of Francesc Massaguer, with a marble sculpture by Josep Llimona, and the pantheon of the Bosch family, attributed to Enric Sagnier, are just two examples.

Arenys de Mar cemetery (Bob Masters / Departament de Cultura)

Masnou cemetery, a museum without walls

Designed in 1860 by Miquel Garriga i Roca, Masnou cemetery relaced the previous cemetery next to the parish church. The new cemetery is notable on account of the large tombs built during the first decade of the 20th century. In fact, many cemeteries along the coastline have such features, a consequence of residence in their localities of people who made their fortunes in America.

It was the town's well-to-do families that championed the cause of the new cemetery, to the point where it became an open-air history museum. One of the most important tombs is the one commissioned by Pere Pagès i Fàbregas, the founder of a family of seafarers in 1926 from the main exponent of the Noucentisme movement, the architect Torres i Grau. The construction, furthermore, has a sculpture by Frederic Marès, known as El desconsol, or 'grief', and it is one of the cemetery's main attractions.

The tomb is located at the entrance to the cemetery alongside that of the Cullell family, the property of the cemetery's master builder, Ignasi Collell i Roca. This descendant of a long lineage of master builders led the construction of the new cemetery, the school, and a number of houses in the town.
Finally, we should also mention the chapel that Josep Gibernau Maristany commissioned from the architect, Bonaventura Bassegoda, in 1907 when he returned from America with a considerable fortune. The chapel has an octagonal floor plan and, as a Modernista place for worship, it has crypt with a chapel for the poor.

El Masnou cemetery (Jordi Play / Departament de Cultura) /  Project done by Miquel Garriga i Roca, October 18, 1870 (AMM, Fons Municipal, caixa 803)

The cemeteries of Barcelona

The history of the cemeteries and the transformation of the city of Barcelona are two things that go hand in hand because, as the city transformed and expanded, it encompassed the cemeteries. A vestige of a remote past is to be seen in the Gothic quarter of the city in the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid, the Via Sepulcral, a Roman burial ground from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE. At that time the area was outside the city limits of the Roman city of Barcino and it was therefore considered appropriate in Roman law for use as a cemetery.

At first there was only one cemetery, nowadays there are nine, all located in different places. Barcelona therefore has various cemeteries where the chronicles of the city can be traced. One way of doing this is by means of the routes organised by the cemeteries of Poblenou, Montjuïc and Les Corts.

Poblenou cemetery (Jordi Play / Departament de Cultura)

Poblenou cemetery, Barcelona's first cemetery

Also known by the names cementiri de lEst (cemetery of the east) and Cementiri Vell (old cemetery), Poblenou cemetery has three centuries of history, being the first modern space in the city devoted to this function in 1775. It was originally build outside the walls and next to the sea, but these days it is located in the Sant Martí district of town. It underwent a number of extensions and today it is structured into a pre-cemetery with a garden and four sections.

The Italian architect, Antonio Ginesi, was in charge of its construction. The aims were clear: ensure the health of the city and encourage people to abandon the custom of performing burials in parish burial grounds. Despite its function, aesthetics were an important consideration and this explains why the cemetery displays a strong influence from the Mediterranean cemeteries of the late 18th century, with a neoclassical style and an ordered, symmetrical layout.

Poblenou cemetery (Jordi Play / Departament de Cultura)

A social X-ray

A stroll through the cemetery reveals aspects of the lives lived by the people of Barcelona. As you enter, you can see marble sculptures, a meeting room, and monumental pantheons, the work of great 19th-century sculptors and architects, which are the property of the wealthiest families in Barcelona.

There are many features of this cemetery that invite you to discover some of Barcelona's history. A good example is the monument to the victims of yellow fever, which broke out in the city in 1821. This epidemic led to an exodus from the city as people sought to escape the death so many were succumbing to.
The cemetery's most well-known sculpture was commissioned by a family associated with the textile industry. It is known as El Petó de la Mort (the kiss of death), a representation of the grief of Josep Llaudet Soler on the premature death of his son. It is the work of Jaume Barba and recalls medieval dances of death. It is accompanied by an epitaph that includes some verses by the poet, Jacint Verdaguer, that give the sculpture its name.
'Petó de la Mort', Jaume Barba, Poblenou cemetery (Departament de Cultura)

Montjuïc cemetery, an English-style solution

Montjuïc cemetery was the second to be built and was popularly known as the Cementiri del Sud-oest (cemetery of the south west) or the Cementiri Nou (new cemetery). The growth in population that the city of Barcelona experienced during the first half of the 20th century made its construction necessary because the Poblenou cemetery could no longer cope. In style it followed an English model with winding paths connecting the different levels of the hill. The cemetery was opened in 1833 and today it is the largest cemetery within the municipality of Barcelona. It covers the south side of the hill of Montjuïc and has a surface area of 567,934 square metres. It has a total of 152,774 graves from different ages: the bronze age, and the Iberian, Roman and medieval periods. Its pantheons are the final resting place for numerous great personages from the past, as well as illustrious members of the bourgeoisie, such as the powerful Batlló family, prominent in the cotton textile industry, and the Ametller family, prominent in the chocolate industry.

Others too have their own place in this large cemetery, such as Ildefons Cerdà, buried under a marble slab which has a representation of his magnum opus, the Eixample, Barcelona's grid-system layout, along with Francesc Macià and Joan Miró.
Finally, the Fossar de la Pedrera (cemetery of the quarry) is an important stop on any visit to Montjuïc cemetery. It was used as a common grave for 4,000 of Franco's victims, including Lluís Companys. It has consequently become a place to commemorate all the victims of the repression and of Franco's bombardments.
Montjuïc cemetery (Jordi Play / Departament de Cultura) / Lluís Companys tomb at Fossar de la Pedrera (Isaac Bordas, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The cemetery of Les Corts, Barcelona's Jewish past

This cemetery was built in 1845 when Modernisme was flourishing and the village of Les Corts was consolidating one of its first urban planning initiatives, the 'New Les Corts'. The cemetery has a Modernista chapel of Byzantine inspiration, as well as pantheons and tombs of distinguished funerary artistry. Furthermore, there are important and iconic sepulchres such as the pantheon-tomb for those repatriated from overseas, a mausoleum dedicated to those who lost their lives during the Cuban and Philippine wars. The crypt is in the form of a fortress and it was paid for by Barcelona City Council itself.
One of the most important features of the Les Corts cemetery is the Jewish cemetery it contains within it. It is Barcelona's oldest Jewish cemetery and is still in use. It is located to the left of the main entrance and has a large and numerous sculptural funereal heritage. To this day it continues to observe Jewish funerary customs. The deceased are buried in the ground, in observance of the Biblical verse in Genesis 3:19, "[...] for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return". The ritual also includes the symbolic bathing of the body, which is then covered with white linen cloth. Finally, the body is shrouded and buried without a coffin, but since this is prohibited under Spanish law, Jews may not follow the ritual according to established tradition but must place the body in a box.
Les Corts cemetery (Cementiri de les Corts)

These are some of Catalonia's most iconic cemeteries, but there are others too and all of them invite us to discover more about our past through the threads of history that can be gleaned from the routes around the cemeteries, such as those in Arenys, Montjuïc and Poblenou, which show, paradoxically, that these places are full of life.