Learning from the Dead in Brazil

 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.

by: John


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

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

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

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