Cementerio Central: A Republican icon worthy of presidents and paupers

The Cementerio Central is an architectural masterpiece dating back to mid 19th century.
The Cementerio Central is an architectural masterpiece dating back to mid 19th century.

When the Cementerio Central opened its iron gates back in 1836, the capital of a new Republic – Santa Fé de Bogotá – finally had a place to honor the dead. Located in a swamp not far from the cobble stone streets of the colonial enclave, it took six years to complete after the Liberator’s struggle for independence. In a health-measure decree, Simón Bolívar banned burials within the churches of Bogotá.

Once a patch of green field for those who succumbed to disease and other maladies of the times, Bogotá’s Cementerio Central today is anything but green, rather hemmed-in from the south by the streets of Los Martires’ red light district, and to the north, by a myriad of bridges that connect Calle 26 with the TransMilenio bus lanes of Avenida Caracas.

While the burial grounds received its share of paupers and merchants, the Cementerio Central evolved into an architectural masterpiece thanks to the vision of sculptors and stonemasons in the early 1900’s. Marble mausoleums became the final resting place for the Republican elite and a consecrated plot was set-aside for the British subjects who fought alongside Simón Bolívar’s army, and under the flag of the British Legion. The British Cemetery (Cementerio Inglés), continues to operate within the Cementerio Central’s walls and every year on November 11th, Remembrance services are held for those who gave up their lives in war.

From high-profile politicians to the Colombian Carnegies and Rockefellers of industry, there’s a passageway for everyone, and anyone, who contributed to the development and growth of this nation. There are tombs to poet, novelists, scientists, even a mass grave for those who died during the violent April 9, 1948, uprising known as “El Bogotazo”.

The Cementerio Central is more than a venerated cemetery. Strolling through the entrance into a maze of low-level tombs and big memorials, an eerie feeling is made more acute by the elongated shadows of trees reaching up from cracked cement. The visitor is also struck by the array of color from florescent flowers in collapsing copper vases, to brightly-colored rosary beads draped over granite busts and branches.

The graves of famous people have become places of worship for many. One of the first I come across, is the grave of Julio Garavito, the famous astronomer who graces the face of Colombia’s $20,000 peso note. I see a man praying on his knees, while touching and kissing the blue tombstone. There is also a grave stone on which stands a large golden statue of two young children, to which people are reaching over the picket fence to kiss and leave brightly coloured flowers, as well as pieces of candy.

People from all social classes are buried in the Cementerio Central. You can find the grave of an ex-president next to a host of citizens’ tombs. Old mausoleums tower next to new ones, and even some, which have been exhumed, as a result of family members not paying the burial fees.

Split up into three sections, you will find the historic part in Zone A, crypts in zone B and in Zone C the mass graves of unknown citizens, which is also known as the ‘Parque del renacimiento’ (The Park of rebirth).

The Cementerio Central is hemmed in by the capital's red light district. Photo: Carlos Llamas.
The Cementerio Central is hemmed in by the capital’s red light district. Photo: Carlos Llamas.

Before visiting, it is worth researching some of the lives lived. Some are hauntingly fascinating ones, such as that of José Raquel Mercados, the trade unionist and president of the Colombian workers alliance (CTC) who was kidnapped and murdered by M-19 guerrillas during the ‘April Movement’ back in February 1976. After two months in captivity and under the slogan “The people’s justice is done by the people,” the M-19 made a public trial of Mercado. He was accused of being a traitor to the working classes and declared an enemy of this fast-growing movement. Mercados’ death was considered the first “war crime” of the M-19.

There also lies the grave of Luis Carlos Galán, the celebrated journalist and Liberal party politician who ran for President of Colombia and was gunned down by hit men from the Medellín drug cartel in 1989 during a political rally in Soacha. Ready to clinch the presidency the following year, his death was a devastating blow to the democratic stability of this nation and the political hopes of millions.

The Cementerio Central is the final resting place for many of Colombia’s presidents, including the first constitutionally-elected one, General Francisco de Paula Santander. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the Major General who became the 45th President of the Republic in 1953 after taking power in a military coup, and who ruled with an iron fist until his ouster on March 10th 1957, when the entire nation went on strike, is also buried within the confines of the Cementerio Central.

Going further back in time, you find an impressive cenotaph at the heart of the cemetery in remembrance of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quedasa (1509-1579), the Spanish conquistador and founder of Santa Fé de Bogotá.

Taking yet another step back, and looking towards the sprawling and ever-changing city from the heart of this cemetery is overwhelming. The dominating Colpatria tower, the billowing smoke of the TransMilenio buses, and the immense noise of traffic all add to the sense of escape and tranquillity that a place like this usually brings. Albeit, as the stories and facts of the violent past creep into one’s mind, it becomes a place owed solely to respect, to the embodiment of Colombian history and a reminder of atrocities that this country never wants to see repeated.

Cementerio Central: Cra 20 No. 24 – 80.


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