A Portuguese cemetery

While my mom was visiting, we took her to a cemetery. Located in a tiny coastal village, it was quite small. But the Portuguese are very good at maximizing the space in their cemeteries.

cemetery aisle

I’m guessing that an actual burial plot is an expensive option, because by far most of the deceased are housed in one of these: essentially a slot for a coffin, stacked four high, with an alcove in the front for memorabilia and decorations.

cemetery alcove

The alcoves usually hold photographs, candles, flowers, and small items of special family significance. Surprisingly, the flowers are often real — this alcove holds a bottle of water for replenishing the vases. Portuguese graves are usually well tended.

cemetery full view

As you can see, the plots aboveground far outnumber the traditional ones below ground. And even in the burial plots, economy of space is practiced. When the father of a friend passed away recently, her grandfather was exhumed from his grave and cremated. The ashes were put into an urn, which was then put into the hands of her father, and both grandfather and father were then buried in the same grave. You see this reflected on the grave markers, which rarely hold just one name.

The least common structures in the cemetery, and probably the most expensive, are the mausoleums. Lined with marble, these usually house four coffins, stacked two each on opposite walls, with the door in the third wall and the open space of the fourth wall piled with flowers, candles on tall holders, photographs, and other memorabilia. The coffins are often draped with fine lace cloths, and the whole interior takes on the appearance of a family shrine. Again, the flowers inside are frequently real.

Mom was knocked out by this little cemetery. As a genealogist, she’s been in quite a few cemeteries back home, but she’d never seen anything like this. “Is this typical?” she asked. Yes, I told her.

“The dead are honored here,” she said.

What a wonderful way of putting it.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in Europe, Portugal. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Portuguese cemetery

  1. Jana says:

    Hallo!
    This is my first post here though I have been reading and lurking for some time now. I find most of your posts very interesting but this one just made me overcome my shyness … :-). The cemetery is similar to the ones I know here (which means the Czech Republic). I live in a small town (about 4 000 people). Our cemetery is probably a little larger and most of the graves are underground but the same applies to sharing them. Usually a family has a grave where all their members are buried. For example when the grave is used for the first time it is about 6 meters deep and when another member of the family dies they dig only 4 meters deep and of course after some time like 20 or 30 years they can again dig deeper.
    Also the graves here are really well cared for. It would be a shame not to do it.
    On the other hand the truth is that this all applies for villages and smaller towns. In bigger towns cremation is more frequent nowadays. It also depends on how religious the family is.

  2. Alma says:

    Fascinating insight into different cultures! The Swedish way is very much like what Jana describes about the Czech Republic. And if the family can’t come and tend to the grave as often as they’d like, the can pay the church to do it for them – raking and replacing flowers and cutting hedges and such.

    Another option here in case of cremation is to put the urn in a niche in a crypt. The names of the people in each niche is put on the stone tablet covering the hole, and vases for flowers can be hung underneath. The Portuguese style where you can see the coffin is prettier, though – I think that would be nicer than hiding the urn the way we do.

  3. Inge says:

    This is a small video of one of the oldest, belgian underground cemetery:

    http://www.deredactie.be/permalink/1.894443

    (from 28 seconds they show the inside) In short, in dutch they say that this is not allowed to visit because of the instability. The governement doesn’t seem interested in saving it.
    But this used to be very visited, with burning candles, fresh flowers,.. as with you.

  4. oregon expat says:

    This is one reason I enjoy blogging so much — I write a bit about a Portuguese custom, and boom, I quickly learn about similar (and different) customs in the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Belgium. Fascinating!

  5. They certainly are honoring the dead here. The cemetery in our town (in South Africa) is a bleak place next to a railway line. Few trees, no grass. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to visit there.

    Thanks for a great site. I love learning about new cultures.

  6. Wow! This is fantastic! You share so many wonderful details of Portugal–details on subjects the authors of books never think to include. I learn something new with every post you make.

  7. I have Portuguese ancestry and now write genealogical software and organize spatial information for genealogists as a hobby. And I do it from Corvallis, Oregon with my friend and business partner, John Nairn, who also lives in Corvallis, Oregon. It was fun to read your blog. Thank you.

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