A Spanish tradition: All Saints day

Nick is annoyed. His anthropology professor has given them an assignment for
this Monday: to go to a cemetery to observe the events.
Now, we are great fans of cemeteries. We have been to Pere Lachaise in Paris
and saw the tombs of Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf (where an irate mourner
angrily hushed visitors), Oscar Wilde (covered with lipstick kisses), and, in the
newer part, Gerda Taro and the memorials containing handfuls of ashes from
several concentration camps. We have seen Louisa May Alcott’s tomb in
Concord, Massachusetts. We’ve been to the Jewish Cemetery in Ferrara where
we saw Giorgio Bassani’s recently dug grave, still without a tombstone; the
English Cemetery in Rome is where Shelley and Keats and an English lady
named Emily Story are buried – this last I remember especially because her
tombstone is protected by a Romantic melancholy angel. Anyone who does the
Freedom Trail in Boston goes by the Old Granary Burial Ground. We’ve visited
the military cemeteries in Nijmegen Holland, Draguignon Provence, and, more
recently, Syracuse, Sicily where several of the graves had this epitaph: “Sleep on,
beloved. At the rising and the sinking of the sun, we remember him.” The
sentiment expressed seems skewered, as if the living dedicate just two times a
day to their loved one. But it sounds very lovely. Our visit to Normandy of course
included a visit to the impressive – both for the uniformity of the rows and the
sheer numbers – white tombstones in the Allied Cemetery. In Istanbul, after
lunching at the Pierre Loti café overlooking the Golden Horn, we decided not to
take the funicular back down to Eyup, instead following the path that winds
through the middle of the cemetery, the graves set into the steep hillside. And
another favorite: the small German Cemetery outside Yuste, visited on an
overcast autumn afternoon, with its more intimate layout: low black crosses
mark the tombs and all are protected by gnarled olive trees, the meeting of
Mittel Europa and the Mediterranean.
Of historical interest in Madrid is the Civil Cemetery. Not very large, it contains
a mish-mash of souls. Germans (Christian but not Catholic); Nicolás Salmerón,
the president of the First Republic in 1873 who lasted in office for one and a half
months, resigning because he refused to sign a death penalty. Dolores Ibarruri,
La Pasionaria, Communist leader and Civil War exhortor; Pablo Iglesias, who
founded the Socialist Party in 1879; a look at his biography and poverty-stricken
early years, when he had to go to work at the age of 12 upon the death of his
father, followed shortly thereafter by the death of his young brother, makes it
clear how he came to be an activist for workers’ rights. The six people associated
with the founding of one of Spain’s most important secular schools, the Instituto
Libre de Enseñanza, are together in one tomb. Julián Besteiro, the Socialist and
university professor who died in prison after the Civil War. In the newer part
can be found tombstones decorated with the tricolor Republican flag, lifelong
Communists or Socialists, or combinations of the two. And, as of yesterday, the
grave of Marcelino Camacho, an historical union leader who died on 29 October
at the age of 92 and whose funeral cortege was multitudinous.
At the end of that visit, we crossed the road, bought a bouquet of flowers and
went in to the huge Almudena cemetery, where we skirted the half-circle walls
containing thousands of niches, making our way towards the main entrance. We
passed the monument to the fallen from the División Azul and a small enclosure
marked by low bushes where pilots from the Condor Legion lie. In front of this is
a monument to the victims of the Cuartel de la Montaña, shot in the first days of
the Civil War. Just beyond the grave of Tierno Galván, one of Madrid’s more
popular Socialist mayors from the period of the Transition, we climbed stone
stairs to a rising which is where my parents-in-law are buried. We left our little
bouquet and paused to enjoy the magnificent views of the entire city off in the
distance, even able to glimpse the mountains in the distance. (Carlos says that
his father came here expressly to choose this choice spot). Then we left the quiet
to catch a bus back into the bustling noisy city of the living and find a place to
have lunch.
These visits were made on sunny fall days when we were practically alone to
appreciate the peace and silence. But the First of November is All Saints Day.
The day after Halloween, a celebration which grows more popular every year,
this year November First falls on a Monday and, being a holiday, this makes for
a nice long weekend. Considering that the clocks fall back on Sunday morning
and that it’s finally gotten chilly and rainy, it’s a perfect weekend for being lazy
and not straying too far from home. That’s for people like us, of course.
Tradition dictates differently.
All Saints’ Day is a celebration of the dead in Spain, as in many other countries.
(One does wonder if people visit their dead any other day of the year.) But come
this date, the city reinforces the bus and subway service out to the cemeteries.
Florists make a mint. In the villages, people go out to the cemetery and scrub
down the tombstones (see the opening scene of Almodovar’s “Volver”). Everyone
brings fresh flowers that will wither away long before the following year and the
next visit. The pastry stores sell a sickly sweet concoction called huesos de
santo, “bones of the saint”, made of a thin roll of marzipan and filled with yema,
a mixture of condensed milk and sugar; when you think of it, it’s a funnily
macabre design: off-white bones with their corresponding bit of marrow.
Irreverent, to say the least!
So, in order to lessen Nick’s pain at having to go out on what should by rights
have been a lazy day, and to make an outing of it all, we decided to accompany
him and join the crowds. More or less, of course, because we chose to visit the
British Cemetery. Usually open only 3 days a week, today it is, exceptionally,
open all day for visitors. We walked through the open wooden door into the
brick-walled enclosure. A gardener was diligently going back and forth with his
wheelbarrow, taking out weeds and filling bare patches with fresh dirt. One
man, accompanied by his three children, was cleaning and replanting a corner
grave the entire time we were there. Another family was just leaving, carting off
dead flowers to dispose of somewhere beyond the garden walls. The visitors’
book was open on a stand opposite a small building used as a sort of chapel,
although it is starkly empty, bare of any statues of saints or virgins.
The niches here are set into a waist-high cement wall, sealed with pretty blue
and white tiles, names and date painted on them. Here we can see Russians and
Americans and Jews. The Baroness Tatiana de Korff, born in St. Petersburg in
1891, is buried side by side with her husband; set at her feet, as it were, were two
pots of matching pink flowers, while his was bedecked with yellow flowers. The
graves are enclosed by a low hedge, as if to set them apart in their own private
(under)world. Further on, a British Minister to Spain from 1940-1944 is buried
next to an RAF pilot and, together, the headstones tell their story: their plane
crashed in 1944 as they were on their way to Barcelona “to meet British POW’s
repatriated from Germany”. The large Bauer mausoleum dominates a Jewish
corner where one can see, neither tombstone nor grave, separate black stone
tablets atop stone columns commemorating Ernesto and Rosa Sachse. A
tombstone graced with a palette and brushes reads, “Albert Heldon Pennoyer,
an American artist who loved Spain…” One grave has the forlorn-sounding
epitaph: “Conde Nicolas Witold (El ultimo de la línea) Count Nicolas Witold
(The Last of the Line); there were no flowers here. And then, one of my personal
favorites honoring Arthur Edward Houghton (Gentleman).
But it was all too sedate. Perhaps too Anglo-Saxon. We needed to have a look at
one of the more typical cemeteries so that Nick could write his paper. The San
Isidro cemetery is not far away so we headed there. As we neared, we saw plenty
of people coming and going. Unexpectedly we came upon the Sacramental de
Santa María, a place we’d never heard of, so headed inside. This was a
completely different story. There were many gypsy clans putting out large
artificial flower centerpieces: hearts, crosses and fan shapes in blue and white or
red and yellow. Candles too. Everyone was dressed up and, barring a few older
women to be seen sitting on folding chairs, staring at the tombs; no one seemed
to be especially mournful. Children played around the tombstones as the adults
arranged their floral offerings, trying to find room for just one more ornate
arrangement. It was crowded, animated, lively. Also, we felt, more intrusive on
our part to look too closely, so we didn’t stay very long. On the way out, I found
myself staring at a young woman holding an older man’s arm, guiding him
carefully and slowly along the uneven paving stones. He said something in a
fretful voice. “You just walk carefully and keep your eyes on the ground,” she
answered, keeping impatience barely in check.
The day was warm and sunny. We saw a large avenue off in the distance and
headed that way, confident we’d find a bus that would take us back into the main
part of the city and, sure enough, came upon a stop with all the information we
needed. Two buses would take us right to the Plaza Mayor. A very short bus ride
– nothing like daily traffic, so it was smooth going all the way – and we were
downtown. Outdoor cafés and sidewalks were filled with people simply enjoying
the holiday and the weather. (Maybe they’d all done their duty earlier in the day
and spent the morning at one of the city’s 22 cemeteries.)
We finished the afternoon having an excellent meal in one of our favorite
restaurants on the Cava Baja, El Schotis, renowned for their tenderly perfect
meat, brought to the table on a sizzling plate, to be cut into smaller pieces and
cooked to one’s taste. My father loved this restaurant and we often took visitors
there when I was a child. It’s been painted since, of course, but otherwise the
décor has not changed one bit, very Sixties and slightly drab. But the waiters are
friendly, the house salad is abundant and perfectly dressed in that particularly
no-fuss combination of vinegar and oil that only Spanish restaurants manage,
the bread is crisp and fresh and chunky, the meat comes with a pleasingly large
platter of French fries, and the desserts are also unchanged: arroz con leche,
leche frita and home-made flan.
Nick really can’t complain too much at having had to go out on a holiday to do
his homework.
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4 Responses to A Spanish tradition: All Saints day

  1. Marge Muzzillo says:

    What a lot of cemeteries you’re familiar with. Thank you for taking me to the Madrid cemeteries I never saw during my time there in the 60s. The Mexican comm,unity in Denver uses sugar skulls instead of “huesos de santos,” and celebrates Day of the Dead. It’s nice to know that a favorite restaurant of your parents is still there for you and your family. A cemetery in the Denver suburb Littleton is best known as the burial place of Alferd Packer, a convicted cannibal, reputed to have survived a mountain winter by consuming his fellow travelers who had frozen to death. It also has a number of hand-crafted tombstones, including my favorite inscribed “he done his best and now he’s rest.”

    • clea says:

      Great epitaph, “he done his best and now he’s rest”. Maybe it’s what we all should aspire to? As for Alferd Packer, “convicted cannibal”, I suppose we can hardly blame him for doing his best to survive, can we?

  2. mike ingrisano says:

    huesos de santos and “Scotty’s”…oooh my mouth is watering

  3. clea says:

    Both still available and as delicious as ever. Madrid awaits your tastebuds.

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