Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Argentina has gone to town over the death of an actress called Eva Perón. We've all gone crazy, mourning all day and mourning all night, falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right.
But who is this Santa Evita? Why all this howling, hysterical sorrow? What kind of goddess has lived among us? How will we ever get by without her? *
You can visit the Duarte family tomb, in which Evita's remains officially rest, in Buenos Aires's Recoleta cemetery - so exclusive that it's said to be cheaper to live the life of a king than to die and be buried there. One tomb has recently changed hands (one wonders about the circumstances of the sale) for 250,000 US dollars. The Duartes' resting place (left) is a shiny confection in black marble and wrought iron, through which pilgrims' offerings of plastic flowers are permanently entwined. I say pilgrims, for it is indeed a shrine of sorts, where Argentinians worship the woman who, during her lifetime, was officially and secularly canonised as "the spiritual leader of the nation". (Her tomb, together with my opening quotation from Evita, reminds me a little of the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. One commentator wrote that the gates of Kensington Palace in the days before her funeral were "like a Marian shrine". Like Diana's, little seems to be known about Mrs Perón's own religious faith.)
Both Recoleta, near the city centre, and La Chacarita, the much larger and less expensive cemetery in a distant and dusty suburb, are as far from the English idea of a final resting place as it's possible to get in the Christian world. They are veritable cities of the dead, who occupy their own homes in their own streets - some of which are quite large enough for entire families of Evita's descamisados to live in comfortably.
Indeed, some of the mausolea are grandiose to the point of pomposity, in the form of chapels complete with altar, candlesticks and prie-dieux, as if waiting for a priest to say mass in them, perhaps in imitation of early Christians celebrating on the tombs of saints. The coffins of the dead are beneath the altar and in chambers under the floor, sometimes running to several stories. Others bear huge statues of the family head or founder, and of patron saints and guardian angels. Some are not much bigger than phone kiosks, resembling large stone cupboards; yet even the most modest can be assumed to have cost a small fortune to build and endow. The best are beautifully swept and polished, flowers clearly regularly renewed, their locks, steps and glass doors gleaming. Others are virtually derelict, unvisited and forgotten, the photos of the dead faded almost to invisibility, little temples of dust, memorials of and to decay. Walking these silent streets of the long departed, I was oddly reminded of Pompeii.
Death, one realises quite quickly, is big down here. Visitors to tombs touch them for luck as they might the statue of a saint in a church, as if to connect physically to the dead and to perhaps to share somehow in their assumed felicity. Roman Catholicism in South America seems more recondite than in the northern hemisphere; an age-old whiff of animism and folk-religion hangs in the air and is subtly - and probably necessarily - accommodated. One suspects that the ancestors are being prayed to, as well as (or even rather than) for.
In La Chacarita is the tomb of Carlos Gardel, the French-Argentine singer, songwriter and "King of Tango" who died in a plane crash in 1935 at the height of his fame, and who has tragic superhero status across Latin America. Its walls of pale marble are covered with beaten and burnished metal plaques from well-wishers, thanking him (not God) for his life and his magical gift that enhanced the lives of so many. Some barely stop short of asking him for spiritual favours. The leading foot of his life-size verdigris'd statue (presenting him in the "Oxford" bags and double breasted and lapelled waistcoat of his day) gleams brassy gold from the hands that touch it daily.
I wrote recently that our life beyond the grave is but the next stage of our life here. For the Christian there is only one life, and it is eternal, provided and sustained by and for God. I sense that this notion of continuum, which can seem radical to western Christians, is pretty much unquestioned by South Americans. They seem to make no bones about, indeed positively engage with, the physical reality of death. They do not internalise, privatise or over-etherealise it as we perhaps do. It is just the door between the house and the street.
* From Evita, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber