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Brazzil - Behavior - May 2004

Learning from the Dead in Brazil

People from around the world and from different backgrounds
lie together in Brazil and have become part of the land that
cared for them.
The names on the gravestones tell a story of mass
immigration. Most are Portuguese and Italian, but there are also
Arab, Armenian, Japanese, Chinese, Polish and French names.

John Fitzpatrick


Picture A wander around a cemetery in São Paulo can not only give you some respite from the constant noise of the city, but highlights the ethnic background of the people who made this metropolis.

Take the sprawling Cemitério São Paulo in the Pinheiros district, which is bounded by two of the city's busiest roads—Henrique Schaumann and Cardeal Arcoverde. It bears no similarity to the 18th century English poet Thomas Gray's country churchyard immortalized in his "Elegy", the opening stanza of which is one of the most memorable in the English language:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward wends his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me

There are none of Gray's "ivy-manteled towers" containing "moping owls" or "rugged elms" or "secret bowers" here, only grim mausoleums and granite tombs. Stone Virgins, angels, saints and risen Christs abound in this spot which is as densely populated as the surrounding urban mass.

It is the kind of cold, austere cemetery which is common in Italy. Since at one point São Paulo contained more Italians than Brazilians, many of those interred were Italian or of Italian origin. To someone more used to Gray's tussocky graveyards, with modest headstones and crosses, this kind of cemetery can appear an extremely ugly final resting place.

There is something almost industrial about the way coffins are not buried in the earth but placed on a stone shelf inside a mausoleum. The shelf is then plastered over. A mausoleum might contain about 10 or 12 family members stacked on top of each other like drawers in a wardrobe. The names are inscribed on the headstones and sometimes photographs of the dead are attached.

Although this particular graveyard is well looked after, there are some graves which have been abandoned. During a recent visit, I peered into one abandoned grave and saw a small box containing bones on a shelf.

The reason this cemetery is well cared for is because it is still used for funerals and contains the mausoleums of the better off, including some well-known São Paulo families. Some of these family spots are very large, with life-sized statues and monuments.

Prominent families represented include those of the former mayor, Paulo Maluf, the current mayor, Marta Suplicy (whose maiden name was Vasconcellos Smith) and the owners of the Votorantim Group, Ermirio de Moraes.

However, having such illustrious corpses can have disadvantages and the graveyard has been the target of thieves. In 1992, thieves invaded the place during the night and broke into 68 tombs. They stole bronze door handles, smashed skulls and extracted gold fillings from teeth.

The cemetery was also subject to a different kind of desecration a couple of years ago when some students projected home-made "art" movies onto one of its walls. About 150 viewers gathered on the pavement of Rua Horácio Lane, drank beer and watched the films which were shown at midnight. This affair was apparently part of a cultural initiative to show films in public places using walls and sides of buildings.

Monumental Folly

Besides the religious statues there are many other monuments, some of which are rather unusual and remind one a little of the architectural follies often found in Europe.

For example, one tomb is called the Mausoleum of the Actor and shows a replica of a stage curtain about 10 feet high and 12 feet wide. Another, belonging to a family called Forte, which was presumably in the restaurant trade, is a life-sized table at which a man and child are sitting. In the center is a loaf of bread.

There is also a small chapel with the kind of medieval-like effigy of a knight's body common in old French and English churches. This chapel contains the remains of Commander Joaquim Gil Pinheiro, who was born in 1855 and who must have been well-known and respected in his day or extremely rich.

There are also some memorials to soldiers and members of the security forces who died in the 1932 uprising against the federal government of dictator Getúlio Vargas.

Foreign Field

A glance at the names reminds one of Cruce Chatwyn's famous comment in his book In Patagonia:

"The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crispina D. Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild—five names taken at random from the among the Rs—told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains."

I am not sure if the disillusion, anxiety and lace curtains are relevant to São Paulo, but the names on the gravestones are equally reflective of the mass emigration to the New World.

The majority of names are obviously Portuguese and Italian, but there are large numbers of Arab names (Bechara, Haddad, Bussab, Cury). Most of the Arabs who came here were Christians fleeing the rule of the 19th century Moslem Ottoman Turks in present-day Lebanon and Syria. They have done remarkably well here in business and politics and their influence is out of proportion to their numbers.

Another group of Christians which fled the Turks were the Armenians who have also flourished in Brazil's welcoming land. Names like Kolanian, Darakjian and Mircalian reflect this corner of the Armenian Diaspora.

There are also many Japanese Christians (Tokutaro, Nakano and Nakayama) and some Chinese (Tang, Chung). There are also some names from traditional Catholic countries such as Poland (Zabloski, Sosnowska), Ukraine (Underavicius) and France (Petit, Montmorency).

I was surprised not to come upon any overtly Irish names in a Catholic cemetery like this. However there are members of the Keating and Fay families here who may well have been Irish. There are many German and Swiss names (Schneider, Zweifel, Dornfeld) and some English, Scots and American names (Kenworthy, Whyte, Davidson, Franklin) but no Welsh names that I saw.

Other Resting Places

The city has its own Protestant cemetery close to the British Club where thousands of expatriate and immigrant Protestants lie. There is also a Jewish graveyard in Butantã.

I am not sure if there are Orthodox and Moslem graveyards but I imagine there must be since there are large communities of Orthodox Christians and Moslems living here.

Not all the city's cemeteries are as built-up and cramped as the Cemitério São Paulo or the other two large cemeteries—Araçá and Consolação. Others are more open with individual graves and gardens.

Probably the most-visited graveyard is Morumbi where one of São Paulo's favorite sons—racing driver Ayrton Senna—is buried. His grave has become almost a shrine and people come from all over the world to lay flowers there.

Another famous Brazilian also lies in Morumbi: the singer Elis Regina. Although she was born in Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, she died in São Paulo in 1982 when she was only about 37.

Since Brazil is predominantly Catholic, cremation is not popular although the authorities would like to encourage it as land for graves is becoming scarce. There is one crematorium in the Vila Alpina district, which is used by the city's non-Christian Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities, Protestants and a growing number of Catholics.

All these people from different backgrounds lie together in Brazil and have become part of the land that cared for them. During my visit to the Cemitério São Paulo the peace was suddenly shattered when a samba school began practicing in nearby Vila Madalena. The noise may have destroyed the Sunday afternoon calm but I was sure none of the souls lying in the graveyard was complaining.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações - www.celt.com.br - which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2004

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