The history of Spain is engraved on its tombstones
By Conchita Burman
Todos los Santos, or All Saints’ Day. November 1 is the day of the year when Catholics pay tribute to friends and family who have passed on.
From the time of the Reconquista in Spain until the latter part of the 18th century, deceased Catholics were interred within the confines of a church or in the cemetery in the surrounding terrain. Then two centuries ago, writers of the Enlightenment concerned with sanitary conditions in Spain advocated the prohibition of burials inside the church. The growth of villages into towns and towns into cities encroached upon the church cemetery outside. Ecclesiastical and royal officials then agreed to move cemeteries outside the city limits which in many cases were some distance from the parochial church.
One such example in Madrid was the cathedral – San Isidro – located in the old part of the city on Calle Toledo. This parish obtained a considerable expanse of land across the Manzanares River known as the Pradera de San Isidro. This meadow offered one of the most beautiful views of Madrid, painted by Goya around the turn of the 18th century. The verbenas there were depicted in his paintings which hang today in the Prado Museum.
Goya witnessed the first interments in the sacramental cemetery of San Isidro. The maestro certainly would not recognize the cemetery today as it has grown by leaps and bounds. He undoubtedly would be disenchanted by the view of Madrid, unless he were a soccer fan, since the huge Atletico de Madrid stadium now sits in the middle [of ]what was his favorite view of the Spanish capital.
The oldest part of San Isidro is near the present entrance. Gravestones there indicate most burials around the beginning of the 19th century, although nearby is a fairly recently acquired plot of land.
One of those tombstones indicated the burial place of Fulgecio Batista, who of course was Fidel Castro’s predecessor in Cuba, and the inscription states: “ex-presidente de la República de Cuba,” and continues with the curious assertion that he completed the second year of law school. It struck me as fairly typical of San Isidro that if one wishes to be buried there, biographical data should be left behind since some of the gravestones read like resumes. This cemetery also seems to be the choice of those holding aristocratic titles. Many of the stones have the indicative crowns: eight points means viscount, six a count, four a marquis and two a duke. Much of Spanish history was made by those interred at San Isidro.
Another sacramental cemetery – San Justo – is alongside San Isidro. Like most cemeteries in Spain, it has may trees and most typical are the cypress. San Justo did not appear to be nearly so peacefully beautiful as San Isidro. There are many different sections separated by wall-tombs. Like many cemeteries in the world today, San Justo is full and is presently negotiating to obtain adjoining land to accommodate the inexorable flow of clients. Alongside the parking area is a structure which looks like the underside of huge overpass of a superhighway, although this cavern is a burial plot for some of the most illustrious families in Spain.
In addition to Madrid’s religious cemeteries there is the municipal – La Almudena. Many famous Spaniards are buried there, although not too many of these held aristocratic titles, or at least it was not indicated on the gravestone. It does not appear to be necessary to have one’s curriculum inscribed, since name, date of birth and date of death seem appropriate. Some of the newer areas of the cemetery may not be so attractive now, but time, trees and shrubs will take care of this. La Almudena has two sections, one for Catholic and one for civil burials.
Another cemetery of some note is north of Madrid near the village of Fuencarral. Pass by the Plaza de Castilla and head north. Ten kilometres past the Plaza Castilla, beyond Fuencarral and the superb restaurant Casa Pedro, you take a left on the road which passes over the Burgos Highway, and on the right you’ll find the Fuencarral cemetery. The view f the Guadarrama Mountains is inspiring and especially so on a clear winter day. This cemetery tends to be mainly for the nearby village. However, it was interesting to see a recent plaque in French installed on the wall commemorating those members of the International Brigade buried there in the Spanish Civil War. During much of the three year conflict, no man’s land was near Fuencarral.
The last cemetery on the tour was reached by a secondary road from Fuencarral and is the final resting place for many of those who fought in the other banda – El Pardo. Passing by on the left of the El Pardo Palace, take the first road to the right, pass the Casa del Principe and in a couple of kilometres you’ll see El Pardo cemetery. It is small and presents a rather spartan appearance on entry. There is little greenery with the exception of some huge oak trees.
Immediately you notice impressive gravestones and ornate mausoleums. Then in the far right-hand corner, you see hundreds of small crosses together in a tiny area. It turns out that most of these were villagers who had been moved there from other parts of the cemetery. Much of the remaining area of the cemetery is the final resting place for loyal associates of General Francisco Franco.
Just beyond the entry on the right is a black tombstone, the burial site of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the Spanish prime minister assassinated in Madrid in 1973. Nearby is a provisional plot which is for the family of Carlos Arias Navarro, the last prime minister of General Franco and the first of the monarchy of King Juan Carlos I. The cemetery is full of ministers , generals and admirals, in addition to being the burial site of Monseñor Balaguer, founder of the Order of Opus Dei. There is the tomb of Felipe Polo, brother of Doña Carmen Polo de Franco. Nearby is the final resting place of Franco’s cousin and confidant, General Francisco Franco Salgado-Araujo, who wrote a controversial biography of the Spanish Caudillo. Alongside is General Camilo Vega, a former minister and key Franco military aide.
The history of Spain is obviously engraved on its tombstones.
Mausoleum of the family of Don Fermin De Muguiro y Azcárate, Count of Muguiro, Senator for the provinces of Navarre (1879-1880), Toledo (1884-1885) and Madrid (1891-1893), who died in 1892. By
Barcex (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Barcex), CC_BY-SA 3.0. Cropped