Secret Locations

La Almudena: Explore Madrid’s city of the dead

7 March 2017

Over five million people are buried, stacked and stored as ashes in Madrid’s biggest graveyard; nicknamed the ‘Epidemic Cemetery’ because of its hasty construction in 1884 to accommodate victims of a rampant cholera outbreak that same year.

La Almudena’s size and layout make it feel like more of a city than a cemetery – it has a historic centre, named streets, and neighbourhoods with different characters. You’ll find upmarket areas with mansions for the rich and famous, detached houses, workers’ apartment blocks, the poor neglected parts of the city and, last but not least, an anarchist squat.

And every year on the 1st of November, families head en masse to their relatives’ graves for the annual autumn clean, to decorate the grave with flowers, and to spend some time with their loved ones – sometimes even staying for a graveside picnic.

The traditional annual cemetery visit

The traditional annual cemetery visit

As an old lady from Cádiz once said to me,

If you want to get to know a city, you have to visit its markets and its graveyards.”

THE MANSIONS

Many celebrities, politicians and the well-to-did are buried here in practically habitable monuments. This separate compound, walled off from the rest of the graveyard, hosts tombs the size of small houses, some complete with doors, curtained windows, a reception area and even a garden. Friends and relatives of the deceased are known to occasionally spend time here – especially on All Saints’ Day – so there is often ample seating inside too.

Inside one of the grander tombs

Inside one of the tombs

Tomb of the late Pablo Iglesias Posse (photo credit: esdiario)

Tomb of the late socialist leader Pablo Iglesias Posse (photo: esdiario)

THE APARTMENT BLOCKS

This area is dominated by dozens of curved rows of crypts, up to seven stories high, where the dead are stacked in stone draws called nichos. This is the cheapest burial option (costing around €1,000), though I use the word ‘burial’ loosely as this option doesn’t adhere to the traditional idea of being returned to the earth. Instead, it seems to hold the deceased in physical limbo (and what feels like spiritual limbo) for eternity, or at least for a short while…

Rows of nichos visible from the historic centre

Rows of nichos visible from the historic centre

All the old bodies have been removed and placed elsewhere, and the tombs will be either knocked down or renovated

All the old bodies have been removed and placed elsewhere, and the tombs will be either knocked down or renovated

Opting for the low-cost option, those buried inside these stacked recesses find themselves at the mercy of a 10-year lease, after which their families can pay for a renewal. If they don’t, the body is cremated and the ashes are scattered in a common burial ground – not necessarily in the same graveyard – to make space for the more recently deceased.

In 2012, almost 3,000 bodies were removed because nobody stepped forward to renew the leases, and this is happening at a growing rate. While some attribute this to the economic crisis, cultural changes also mean people are placing less importance on maintaining family graves.

Eventually, the block will fall to ruins – no structure like this could last forever – and all remaining remains will be evacuated to make room for a brand-new block.

It can be a huge shock to those who didn’t realise a lease was due for renewal when they go to visit the grave and find that it’s been exhumed. Imagine going to visit your relative’s grave, only to see a hole in the ground and a pile of dirt next to it. This turnover system may sound extreme, but in a city as big as Madrid, and with an already overcrowded population (both alive and dead), it’s easier to understand.

THE DETACHED HOUSES

In the old town/historic centre you will find the most stunning part of the graveyard, boasting large marble gravestones of different shapes, sizes, colours and designs. Many of these impressive graves are adorned with plastic flowers, cast iron crucifixes and framed photographs.

Some of these graves are for one person only, but others hold numerous families members one on top of the other. Over the years, these graves are known to be opened up multiple times and added to; as older corpses decompose, they are flattened down to free up space for new bodies to be laid on top. A friend of mine believes her family grave may hold around six bodies, all on top of one another.

Two back-to-back streets of marble graves

Two rows of marble graves separated by a small path

An ornate sculpture of a weeping woman lying on top of one grave

An ornate sculpture of a mourning woman lying on top of one grave

Virgin Mary overlooking Madrid from La Almudena's historic centre

The Virgin Mary looking over Madrid from La Almudena’s hilltop centre

View of Madrid from the centre of the cemetery

View of Madrid from the centre of the cemetery

The main chapel in La Almudena

The main chapel in La Almudena

A path leading up to the chapel

A path leading up to the chapel (seen centrally in the distance)

Ruins from previous grand tombs

Ruins from previous graves gathered in the historic centre

A grave like this will set you back around €6,000 and has a 99-year renewable lease. With multiple bodies inside, the cost begins to balance out, and if there are multiple generations inside, the grave is more likely to be remembered and therefore maintained. Sometimes it can be difficult to contact the deceased’s relatives to inform them of the renewal date, and if the lease is not renewed, the bodies will be exhumed and cremated and the ashes will be scattered in a common burial ground.

THE NO-FRILLS QUARTER

La Almudena contains many simple graves that lie back-to-back and side-to-side, separated by just a single row of bricks. These plots are either filled with gravel or covered by hardy herbs that have been intentionally planted on top, and the oldest of them have seen decades of neglect. Some have cracked and collapsed, and others are completely overgrown with herbs and vines.

Some of the more no-frills back-to-back grave plots with 'apartment blocks' and some of La Almudena's grand tombs in the background

Some of the more no-frills back-to-back grave plots with ‘apartment blocks’ and some of La Almudena’s family tombs in the background

A rosemary bush adorns a grave plot

A rosemary bush adorns a grave plot

This rosemary bush has become overgrown

A grave almost entirely obscured by an overgrown rosemary bush

THE SQUAT

At each side of the cemetery’s grand entrance, two imposing red buildings stand tall like eerie stone guardians of a forgotten kingdom. It’s hard to believe that one of these incredible houses was left abandoned for 26 years before being occupied by ESOA La Dragona in 2008.

ESOA La Dragona okupa

ESOA La Dragona is a volunteer-run community space

ESOA La Dragona started out as an okupa in a disused building and was met with much resistance, but it’s since developed into a community space (like Lavapiés’s Tabacalera and Esta es una Plaza) where events and workshops are held. Children, immigrants, unemployed people and many others can find a safe place here to escape from their troubles, make friends and learn new skills. There’s also a little library and café inside – and it’s all run by volunteers.

EUROPE’S BIGGEST CEMETERY

No photograph can convey the sheer size of La Almudena. Seen on the centre right of this map, it’s bigger than Retiro Park, and the mass of marble and stone make it a much lighter colour than the surrounding city.

A photograph also cannot capture how peaceful and full of nature this cemetery is, so here’s a short silent video I made to give you a feel for this incredible place.

La Almudena might not seem like an obvious sight to see – if, arguably, a sight at all – but its history, stunning sculptures and surprisingly abundant wildlife make this cemetery worth a visit. And to round your day off, go for a caña y tapa nearby at the brilliantly no-frills neighbourhood haunt Bar Juanito.

INFO

  • Location: Avenida Daroca, 90
  • Nearest metro: La Elipa (line 2)
  • Opening hours: 8 am-6.30 pm (7.30 pm in summer)

THE BRITISH CEMETERY

Did you know there’s a British cemetery in Madrid? It’s been there, overlooking the river for 163 years, and an old English gentleman has the keys.

David Butler's British Cemetery tour

David Butler’s British Cemetery tour

The eccentric 84-year-old historian standing on a tiny platform in the photograph is David Butler. He’s lived in Madrid most of his life but is passionate about all things British. David was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in north-east England, but he says he’s never going back and has even bought himself a plot in the British Cemetery. You can see his name sellotaped onto the cemetery plan by the entrance.

Pop along to one of his tours (in English or Spanish) and you might spot some well-known adopted Madrileños buried there, including the founder of Restaurante Lhardy.

INFO

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2 Comments

Joy Figueroa 8 March 2017 at 9:37 am

This is so cool! I had no idea. I’ve never visited but never knew I wanted to until seeing your post.

Reply
Madrid No Frills 8 March 2017 at 9:46 am

Thanks Joy! It really is a fascinating place, and so calm – definitely worth stroll through on a sunny Saturday afternoon!

Reply

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