November 1 is All Saints Day which honours Christian saints. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, a day of prayer for the dead. On these days, Portuguese cemeteries are full of visiting families and I too visited my local cemetery in Lagoa.
I spent a fascinating morning talking to Mário Aleixo, resident grave digger and caretaker who actually lives inside the cemetery with his pet cats!
A builder by trade, he applied for the job four years ago after finding himself unemployed due to a leg problem.
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Mário has been in Portugal 14 years and says the last four have been the most peaceful. He proudly gave me a tour and I was surprised at the notable differences between Portuguese and English cemeteries and burial methods.
Cemeteries here have mostly white marble graves which look relatively new; such a contrast to English cemeteries which have hundreds of mausoleums and gravestones, mostly gothic in appearance and many old ones that are eroded and full of lichen.
In 2013, a BBC survey found many cemeteries in Britain will run out of space within 20 years which is shocking considering over 74% of people opt for cremation. Councils are therefore looking into reusing graves by reburying remains at a deeper level, already occurring in the City of London Cemetery but so far rejected elsewhere.
Portuguese cemeteries are rarely extended and the reason for this is rather macabre. Permanent plots are scarce, so bodies are buried just one metre deep and exhumed legally after three years, although it is 10 years in Lagoa.
Families are informed of the ‘lifting of the bones’ and Mário has the job of exhuming the body. He washes the remains which are then put in a small casket and ‘reburied’ in one of the small clear glass-fronted compartments lining the cemetery walls. Through these ‘windows’ you can see shrines made with statues, flowers and candles placed in front of the caskets.
It is disconcerting that all the compartments and gravestones have a photograph of the deceased reminding you of the fragility of life.
Alternatively, instead of a traditional burial, around the cemetery there are also rows of larger compartments known as ‘gavetões’ where full-sized coffins are permanently placed and are disturbingly visible through the glass doors, albeit most are covered with a lace cloth.
There are also two ‘avenues’ of mausoleums belonging to the town’s more affluent families, each usually with six shelves inside and space for more underground. Not overtly ostentatious, they have carved symbols such as plants, objects and statues depicting the deceased’s life and death. Lagoa only has room for six new ones!
Funerals typically occur within 72 hours. The body rests in the local chapel for people to pay their respects. After mass, mourners walk through town to the cemetery where often the coffin is re-opened for a last goodbye before being buried or placed in the ‘gavetão’.
Everyone then goes home or back to work. Rarely is there a gathering after the funeral, which seems sad to me. It all happens very quickly and I now appreciate our custom in England to go back to the family home for tea!
During my visit, the cemetery was a hive of activity, whole families arriving with arms full of flowers and cleaning materials! People were washing the gravestones, sweeping out and dusting the mausoleums, laying flowers or just sitting and praying.
At the end of the day, the gleaming white marble graves were a field of colour due to the masses of fresh flowers that decorated them.
Mário likes these days as going home to his small house within the cemetery he admires his ‘garden’ in full bloom, although it is not long before the flowers die leaving the cemetery a sadder place.
With limited permanent burials, there are few ancient graves at the cemetery but the oldest slab set in the cobblestones caught my attention. It is inscribed with: “Here lies Antonio Silvestre Coelho Tavares Judice, a Knight of the Order of Christ, coronel of the military, captain retired of this village of Lagoa, died December 1829.”
Intrigued, I investigated and found out that the Order of Christ was a religious and military order formed in 1319 by King Dom Dinis who, unlike the rest of Europe, refused to persecute the Knights Templar.
With the Pope’s permission, he changed the order’s name and by inheriting the Templars’ properties and privileges the new order became very influential, later funding Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama during the age of discoveries. The Order was extinguished along with the monarchy in 1910 but was revived in 1918 with the President of Portugal given the title of Grand Master.
Antonio Judice was commander in charge of recruiting maritime personnel to defend the local coast and he was admired and respected by all. He personally funded the restoration of the Carvoeiro Fort in 1797!
I was apprehensive about visiting the cemetery but it was comforting to see so many people remembering their loved ones. The tree-lined entrance with park benches is a peaceful place to sit and remember.
Visiting a cemetery as a ‘tourist’ is becoming more popular to see ‘funeral art’ and the most inspiring has to be the sculptures in the Staglieno cemetery in Genoa Italy, which has the most breathtakingly beautiful statues from the late 19th century and is worth a visit even if just on Google!
Despite his whole family being in Brazil and trying to convince him to return, Mário likes his tranquil environment and is at his happiest in the evenings, when the cemetery is closed and all around him there is peace.
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and living on a farm with many animals, her family is always involved in unusual life stories! In her spare time she enjoys writing, photography and family tree research.
So now you know!