Learning from the Dead in Brazil
May 25 2004
People from around the world and from different backgrounds
lie together in Brazil and have become part of the land that
cared for them. The names on the gravestones tell a story of mass
immigration. Most are Portuguese and Italian, but there are also Arab,
Armenian, Japanese, Chinese, Polish and French names. John Fitzpatrick
A wander around a cemetery in São Paulo can not only give you some
respite from the constant noise of the city, but highlights the ethnic
background of the people who made this metropolis.
Take the sprawling Cemitério São Paulo in the Pinheiros district,
which is bounded by two of the city’s busiest roads—Henrique Schaumann
and Cardeal Arcoverde. It bears no similarity to the 18th century
English poet Thomas Gray’s country churchyard immortalized in his
“Elegy”, the opening stanza of which is one of the most memorable in
the English language:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind
slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward wends his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me
There are none of Gray’s “ivy-manteled towers” containing “moping
owls” or “rugged elms” or “secret bowers” here, only grim mausoleums
and granite tombs. Stone Virgins, angels, saints and risen Christs
abound in this spot which is as densely populated as the surrounding
It is the kind of cold, austere cemetery which is common in Italy.
Since at one point São Paulo contained more Italians than Brazilians,
many of those interred were Italian or of Italian origin. To someone
more used to Gray’s tussocky graveyards, with modest headstones and
crosses, this kind of cemetery can appear an extremely ugly final
There is something almost industrial about the way coffins are not
buried in the earth but placed on a stone shelf inside a mausoleum.
The shelf is then plastered over. A mausoleum might contain about
10 or 12 family members stacked on top of each other like drawers in
a wardrobe. The names are inscribed on the headstones and sometimes
photographs of the dead are attached.
Although this particular graveyard is well looked after, there are some
graves which have been abandoned. During a recent visit, I peered into
one abandoned grave and saw a small box containing bones on a shelf.
The reason this cemetery is well cared for is because it is still
used for funerals and contains the mausoleums of the better off,
including some well-known São Paulo families. Some of these family
spots are very large, with life-sized statues and monuments.
Prominent families represented include those of the former mayor,
Paulo Maluf, the current mayor, Marta Suplicy (whose maiden name was
Vasconcellos Smith) and the owners of the Votorantim Group, Ermirio
However, having such illustrious corpses can have disadvantages and
the graveyard has been the target of thieves. In 1992, thieves invaded
the place during the night and broke into 68 tombs. They stole bronze
door handles, smashed skulls and extracted gold fillings from teeth.
The cemetery was also subject to a different kind of desecration a
couple of years ago when some students projected home-made “art” movies
onto one of its walls. About 150 viewers gathered on the pavement of
Rua Horácio Lane, drank beer and watched the films which were shown
at midnight. This affair was apparently part of a cultural initiative
to show films in public places using walls and sides of buildings.
Besides the religious statues there are many other monuments, some of
which are rather unusual and remind one a little of the architectural
follies often found in Europe.
For example, one tomb is called the Mausoleum of the Actor and shows
a replica of a stage curtain about 10 feet high and 12 feet wide.
Another, belonging to a family called Forte, which was presumably in
the restaurant trade, is a life-sized table at which a man and child
are sitting. In the center is a loaf of bread.
There is also a small chapel with the kind of medieval-like effigy
of a knight’s body common in old French and English churches. This
chapel contains the remains of Commander Joaquim Gil Pinheiro, who
was born in 1855 and who must have been well-known and respected in
his day or extremely rich.
There are also some memorials to soldiers and members of the security
forces who died in the 1932 uprising against the federal government
of dictator Getúlio Vargas.
A glance at the names reminds one of Cruce Chatwyn’s famous comment
in his book In Patagonia:
“The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory.
Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crispina D. Z. de Rose, Ladislao
Radziwil and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild—five names taken
at random from the among the Rs—told a story of exile, disillusion
and anxiety behind lace curtains.”
I am not sure if the disillusion, anxiety and lace curtains are
relevant to São Paulo, but the names on the gravestones are equally
reflective of the mass emigration to the New World.
The majority of names are obviously Portuguese and Italian, but there
are large numbers of Arab names (Bechara, Haddad, Bussab, Cury). Most
of the Arabs who came here were Christians fleeing the rule of the
19th century Moslem Ottoman Turks in present-day Lebanon and Syria.
They have done remarkably well here in business and politics and
their influence is out of proportion to their numbers.
Another group of Christians which fled the Turks were the Armenians who
have also flourished in Brazil’s welcoming land. Names like Kolanian,
Darakjian and Mircalian reflect this corner of the Armenian Diaspora.
There are also many Japanese Christians (Tokutaro, Nakano and Nakayama)
and some Chinese (Tang, Chung). There are also some names from
traditional Catholic countries such as Poland (Zabloski, Sosnowska),
Ukraine (Underavicius) and France (Petit, Montmorency).
I was surprised not to come upon any overtly Irish names in a Catholic
cemetery like this. However there are members of the Keating and Fay
families here who may well have been Irish. There are many German
and Swiss names (Schneider, Zweifel, Dornfeld) and some English,
Scots and American names (Kenworthy, Whyte, Davidson, Franklin)
but no Welsh names that I saw.
Other Resting Places
The city has its own Protestant cemetery close to the British Club
where thousands of expatriate and immigrant Protestants lie. There
is also a Jewish graveyard in Butantã.
I am not sure if there are Orthodox and Moslem graveyards but I
imagine there must be since there are large communities of Orthodox
Christians and Moslems living here.
Not all the city’s cemeteries are as built-up and cramped as the
Cemitério São Paulo or the other two large cemeteries—Araçá and
Consolação. Others are more open with individual graves and gardens.
Probably the most-visited graveyard is Morumbi where one of São Paulo’s
favorite sons—racing driver Ayrton Senna—is buried. His grave has
become almost a shrine and people come from all over the world to
lay flowers there.
Another famous Brazilian also lies in Morumbi: the singer Elis
Regina. Although she was born in Porto Alegre, in the southern state
of Rio Grande do Sul, she died in São Paulo in 1982 when she was only
Since Brazil is predominantly Catholic, cremation is not popular
although the authorities would like to encourage it as land for
graves is becoming scarce. There is one crematorium in the Vila Alpina
district, which is used by the city’s non-Christian Japanese, Chinese
and Korean communities, Protestants and a growing number of Catholics.
All these people from different backgrounds lie together in Brazil
and have become part of the land that cared for them. During my visit
to the Cemitério São Paulo the peace was suddenly shattered when a
samba school began practicing in nearby Vila Madalena. The noise may
have destroyed the Sunday afternoon calm but I was sure none of the
souls lying in the graveyard was complaining.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in
1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and
finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações –
– which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian
and foreign clients. You can reach him at [email protected]