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.
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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.
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.
- Location: Calle Comandante Fontanes, 7
- Nearest metro: Urgel (line 5)
- Opening hours: arrange a tour with David