Death’s Garden: Coimetrophobia

Alto de Sao Joao 2 - Daniel Do Nascimento

Bullfighter’s monument at the Cemetery of Alto de Sao Joao, Lisbon, Portugal. All photos by David Bingham.

by David Bingham

Here is a word that you may not be familiar with: coimetrophobia, the fear of cemeteries. My Portuguese wife does not share my love of burial grounds. Intimations of mortality cause her acute anxiety. Gravestones, mausoleums, hearses, coffins: any reminder of the lipless grin of the skull beneath the skin horrifies her. She has only been able to face visiting her mother’s grave twice in the twenty years since she died.

Cemeteries provoke overwhelming feelings of dread, perhaps because they arouse too many painful memories. Her elder brother once worked as a night watchman in the town of Evora, famous for its Roman ruins and the Capela dos Ossos, the bone chapel, in the church of Sao Francisco. He always made his way home after his 12-hour shift, tired and inattentive and no doubt dreaming of his bed, at the time when the daily rush hour was just starting. One day, instead of waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection, he blundered out into the road, oblivious to the bus packed with commuters that knocked him down and killed him instantly. His funeral took place back home in Lisbon. He was a solitary man, with few friends, and the funeral cortege consisted of just the hearse containing the coffin and a minibus to carry the mourners.

Alto de Sao Joao 5 - tomb detailThe cortege set off at a suitably funereal pace — hearse in front, minibus at a respectful distance behind — to the cemetery. It wasn’t long before there were mutterings about the route chosen by the hearse driver. It did not seem to be the most direct was the general consensus. My fellow passengers grew increasingly restive as we drove on. When we halted at a set of traffic lights, one of them insisted on getting down from the minibus. He ran to the hearse and had what appeared to be a very animated conversation with the driver. When he returned to the bus, he announced, “O gajo disse que ele sabe aonde nós vamos.” The guy says he knows where he is going.

When we finally pulled into the cemetery 20 minutes later, there was uproar. My fellow passengers piled out of the minibus, surrounded the hearse, and began manhandling the driver. He had driven us to the wrong cemetery. Now we were at least 45 minutes from where we should have been, at 4:00 in the afternoon, an hour before the correct cemetery closed…just as Lisbon’s notorious rush-hour traffic was about to start.

Our hitherto stately pace soon stepped up a gear as we raced against time to get to the cemetery before it closed. Dignity went out of the window. The hearse gradually increased its speed as it wove in and out of the traffic on the freeway. The disgraced driver leaned heavily on his horn to warn slower vehicles to get out of the way. The reckless manoeuvring and excessive speed soon attracted the attention of the traffic police. Further valuable minutes were wasted at the side of the road, explaining to a pair of impassive cops in mirror shades what the hurry was, then arguing when they gave both drivers tickets.

Alto de Sao Joao 7 - Fernão Botto Machado

Monument of Fernao Botto Machado.

When we finally arrived at the cemetery, the main gates were already closed. The staff told us to come back amanhã. I swear money had to exchange hands before the gates swung open again and we were issued a pair of shovels and told we had 15 minutes. The priest who was meant to officiate had long since gone home, as had the gravediggers, and so my brother-in-law was buried without benefit of clergy. The funeral directors seemed most reluctant to get their hands dirty, but being surrounded by a mob of furious, grieving relatives who looked likely, at any further provocation, to batter them senseless and bury them alive, accepted the spades thrust into their hands. They shoveled dirt unenthusiastically on top of the coffin.

The experience may have put my wife off cemeteries, but it merely whetted my curiosity. A few years later, when my sister-in-law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias, I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th-floor windows. The Cemitério do Alto de São João didn’t look too far away. I promised myself that, when an opportunity presented itself, I would go and have a good look.

It took a good couple of years before that opportunity came. One day we were in Lisbon at my sister-in-law’s. She was engaged with my wife in one of those interminable family conversations that are deeply interesting to the participants and utterly confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the family tree root, branch, and twig. We had just eaten a heavy Portuguese lunch (at which I probably helped myself to more than my fair share). I’d had a couple of Sagres beers, the apartment was warm, the conversation was about the avô of some tia’s cunhada back in Beira Alta, and the inevitable happened. My wife shook me brusquely awake and told me to go for a walk and get some air.

I finally had my chance to visit the Alto de São João, the Heights of St. John. It took me a while to find the cemetery. Still groggy and disoriented when I left the apartment, I took the easiest route out of Olaias, downhill, which took me down into the valley below the cemetery and left me with a long walk back uphill to skirt the walls and locate the entrance.

Alto de Sao Joao 6 - mausoleumsThe cemitério is a true necropolis. The dead mainly reside aboveground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line streets that have names and numbers, just like in a real town. In Lisbon’s strong light, the cemetery’s deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials, take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.

The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic, when plague pits were dug on what was then a hilltop outside the Lisbon city limits. At that time, Portugal had very few cemeteries; most interments were made in religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly parish churches, but also in monasteries and convents. Following centuries of burials within the walls, these became overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1835, a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots in the town of Lanhoso that grew into an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho. However, in the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto, the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris, or Berlin.

In response to the new laws, the city government of Lisbon founded two cemeteries in 1835, both on high ground on the city outskirts: Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).

In death as in life, 19th-century Portugal was a divided nation. Which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views. Prazeres is the resting place of choice for the Conservatives — the aristocrats, clergy, military, and high financiers — who were the backbone of traditional society. The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João, on the other hand, are Liberals to a man: republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists, and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium. Its construction was approved in 1912 and completed shortly afterwards. Predictably, the innovation was opposed by the Catholic Church, but cremation proved a proposition too radical for even their most Liberal opponents. The crematorium only became functional in 1925, when an incinerator was acquired from Germany. Once working, it proved a huge flop: between 1925 and 1936, only 22 people chose to be cremated. The decoration of the crematorium itself is remarkable: the skulls, femurs, and pelvic bones, wreathed in flames and smoke — with its hint of the inferno — seem calculated to create unease amongst potential clients with religious qualms.

Alto de Sao Joao 4 - Crematorium detailCemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down in 1936. It didn’t reopen until 1985, and then mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. Cremation gradually became an acceptable method of disposing of the dead, though nowhere near as popular as it is in the UK or the USA.

Alto de Sao Joao 3 - Tomas da RochaMy favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento, and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bullfighting is very different from Spanish: the bull isn’t killed. The important toureiros (bullfighters) are not matadors, but the cavaleiros, horsemen who dress in 18th-century costume. Mounted on Lusitano horses, their job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bull’s front legs to weaken it. This makes it possible for the cavaleiro to be replaced by an 8-strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring unarmed and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch, a group hug called a ‘pega.’

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of 12 May 1904. Fernando was fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the estate of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bull’s back, but the incensed animal charged, knocking his horse’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs, and stirrups, and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help. The bull was coaxed away. The panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen. The base of his skull was fatally crushed.

Alto de Sao Joao 1 - Fernando De Oliveira

Monument to Fernando de Oliveira.

In the days before film and video, no one could be quite sure what had happened after the horse stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that Fernando had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horseman had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall, but with his back towards the bull, which gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

I have been back to the Cemitério do Alto de São João many times since that first visit, but have never been able to persuade my wife to accompany me. Ironically she shares the common Catholic antipathy to cremation and insists that when her time comes, she must be decently buried. In a cemetery, of course. Death reconciles us with everything, it seems, even coimetrophobia.


Self portraitBorn in the north of England, David Bingham has been living in London for 35 years. He loves the city and its history, especially the cemeteries. He is married to a Portuguese coimetrophobe and they have two teenage girls. They have a house in Portugal and one day plan to split their time between Lisbon and London.

David started The London Dead three years ago as a way of sharing his fascination with the stories he discovered in the cemeteries and churchyards of London. One day, when he finally rids himself of work commitments — and the girls don’t require chauffeuring and chaperoning somewhere virtually every evening and weekend — he will start a blog called The Lisbon Dead.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.



6 responses to “Death’s Garden: Coimetrophobia

Leave a Reply