Saturday, July 2, 2011

Remaking Bogotá's Central Cemetery

Excavating for what is to be a library or auditorium or memorial on part of the Central Cemetery. They've also found human remains. 
In 1830, when Bogotá set aside three huge blocks of rural land for a Central Cemetery, city leaders must have assumed that the tiny town of Bogotá would never expand to reach the area.

A researcher cleans a skeleton. (
Almost 200 years and eight million people later, the Central Cemetery is near the center of a greatly grown Bogotá. A historical, spiritual and emotional landmark, the cemetery also occupies a big piece of unurbanized land in a city short on public parks.

A skull with
dentures unearthed
 on the land.
In the year 2000, the Central Cemetery's westernmost section, the Children's Cemetery, was converted into the Parque Renacimiento, or Rebirth Park, intended to be used for contemplation and quiet activities such as reading, jazz concerts, student field trips and tricycling children.

An amulet and necklace
carved from seeds.  (
Bogotános have told me of tremendously moving scenes when families came to retrieve the remains of their children for cremation or reburial. However, a Bogotá mayor said wisely that 'the living are more important than the dead.'

Will the empty mausoleums be demolished?
Next to be used is the old cemetery's central block, which contains a half-dozen huge and now-empty mausoleums and lots of empty land. Excavation has already begun on the area's western edge, where the city plans an auditorium or a library or a museum of historical memory, according to this video.

Stenciled images on the mausoleums represent 
victims of Colombia's violence. 
I've also heard about different plans for the mausoleums, which artists decorated with images of people carrying stretchers, to represent victims of Colombia's violence. These handsome structures are historical monuments, but the neighborhood badly needs green areas. Preserving one of them could be an option - but how would the city protect it from the inevitable graffiti once kids have access?

Corpses piled in the Central Cemetery during El Bogotazo.
Nobody's certain where they were finally buried.
In preparation for the area's new use, archeologists are sifting thru the soil for remains of people who were buried there, either in unmarked graves, or whose markers were disappeared by time. The area was used for burials beginning in the late 1800s until about 1970. The archeologists have found some 2,000 sets of human remains, from which they've learned about dress, health and stature of the time. They've found that in some cases the Bogotanos' health was worse than that of pre-Colombian peoples.  And somewhere on the land historians expect to find mass graves containing remains of victims of the Bogotazo - the huge riots which followed the 1948 assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Perhaps 4,000 bodies from that single episode, when members of the Liberal and Conservative political parties massacred each other.

With that sort of history, the area's renovation is a great opportunity to create a historical exhibition about this tragic episode and the dangers of political fanaticism.

Parque del Renacimiento: Tranquil, but usually empty.
But, besides that, I hope that the area is made into sports fields, which are badly needed by the mostly poor and often troubled youth of the Santa Fe neighborhood - which happens to be the site of the city's Red Light District, with all of its associated social problems. This section of the Central Cemetery could be a smaller version of Tercer Milenio Park, which on weekends fills up with kids from the surrounding poor neighborhoods. Parque Renacimiento is lightly used, altho this may change when the adjoining Transmilenio line begins operating. The neighborhood's kid don't need another 'contemplative park' to sit around and read and meditate, but space to release their energies in a positive way. 

Soccer, or football, is the most popular sport in Colombia, and central Bogotá lacks good soccer fields. Here's a chance to address this problem. 

Of course, the Central Cemetery's eastern block, full of history, tradition and sculptures will not be disturbed.

The historical block of the Central Cemetery will not be disturbed. 

The Central Cemetery's entranceway. 

Tomb of Pres. Alfonso Lopez. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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