In the Bolivian capital of La Paz, overcrowding is not restricted to the living. The city’s cemeteries are so full that that a crypt in the biggest one, the Cementerio General, is only reserved for 10 years, after which the remains need to be cremated and collected by the deceased’s family, or stored in a smaller space.
Since its establishment in 1826, the Cementerio General, located between the city’s historic center and El Alto, has grown so much in size that it resembles a city in itself. Spread over 1.5 miles, the equivalent of 15 city blocks, the predominant sites are rows of individual concrete compartments, each set in structures over four stories high.
The compact tombs stacked one above another are framed by a shrine covered with glass, which are decorated with flowers, photos, and other mementos that are placed there by bereaved families. These are added with the help of ladders to aid the deceased’s journey into the afterlife, and are part of a tradition where death is seen a continuation of life.
The building facades painted with colorful murals frame an intricate series of alleys, where relatives organize parties, lunches, and family gatherings in front of their loved ones, and even play songs to the dead. The cemetery becomes even more boisterous during the “Day of the Dead” festivities, where each family visits their beloved relatives and spends the entire day there, feasting and celebrating.
This colorful exterior masks the cemetery’s problems that are continually exacerbated by its rapid expansion and huge demand. Many people are buried without order and documents, and others are evicted if cemetery fees have not been paid. If fee deadlines are missed or cannot be met, the bodies are sometimes removed and cannot be traced.
Know Before You Go
Easiest access from the Red Teleferico in central La Paz. Second stop before El Alto.