A Day at El Panteon de Belen
Story & photos by Hauquan Chau
The ghosts of Panteon de Belen, once a hospital cemetery, now a museum, walk the carefully manicured lawns. The air seems thicker inside, cooler even, as you pass through the front gates. Looking down, are stone reliefs of two boys sitting at the ends of a tomb, heads down and crying, and an old man with sweeping, angelic wings soars above them. Youth and Age representing the passage of time.
Within the high, thick walls, sprawled as if with no design are tombs and graves of the deceased from the 19th century. On either side, a mausoleum that stretches all the way towards the opposite walls, holding 900 people in all, 900 stories. The orange arches and the columns that hold them, offer a colourful contrast to the grey and crumbling stones.
It was built in 1848 by the eminent Manual Gomez Ibarra, who was also in charge of many of the buildings in the historical center of Guadalajara including the rebuilt cathedral towers and the Cabanas Cultural Institute (Home to one of Mexico�s famous mural works by Orozco). After only 50 years however, it was closed in 1896 by the health authorities. Since then, it has been opened as a museum, a glimpse into the pre-revolutionary past of 19th century Mexico.
Once a cemetery for the Old Civil Hospital (what does that say about the hospital?), many former patients now rest peacefully, their stories retold through countless generations. With each retelling, the stories become bigger and bigger until the line between fact and fiction becomes indistinct. The stuff of legends and folk myth.
A prominent oak tree grows seemingly from the tomb itself, its roots moving the very foundation of the tomb, revealing a dark opening. Here resides �El Vampiro� a once formidable creature of the dark but finally overcame by the locals, a wooden stake driven in its heart. Legend says that the stake grew and sprouted above ground and grew into the oak tree, which now shadows the vampire�s tomb, nourished by the vampire�s own blood. Cut its branches instead of finding flowing sap, you�ll find blood instead, straight for the vampire�s own body.
Lots of trees dot the grounds each one with its own stories but near the vampire�s tomb, you can find the remains of a tree. Now only a stump, the tree was home to death. One night, a young boy, no more than ten years old, sneaked out of the hospital with rope in hand. His whole life was pain and struggle after being diagnosed with cancer. Climbing the tree, he finally hanged himself from one of its branches. Soon after, the tree was cut down, from fear that others would follow his lead.
Apparently, there have been many young deaths. Near the front gates, a stone coffin lies above ground, where another boy lays, a young Ignacio Torres. Like many children of his age, he was afraid of the dark. After his death, legends say that every morning when the caretakers would come in, the coffin was found above ground, even after repeated attempts to rebury it. Even in death, darkness was still feared.
Just a few steps away, a tall gravestone has a name of a woman, Victoriana Hurtado, died on 26th of August, 1895 and just above it, stone relief of her clenched fist, seeming to break through the headstone. Under this tomb, lies a woman who was buried alive by her treacherous husband. Despite the cries for help and the pounding on her coffin, the locals were too late to save the poor woman. Now it serves as a monument for troubled women everywhere who have domestic problems. They come and light a candle for her; a plea for help in their own troubled marriages.
Walk further down and each headstone that you step pass is another story of countless tragedy and gothic wonder. What about the pirate who was buried along with his secret of a hidden treasure. Dare to come back at midnight and his ghost will appear and tell you the whereabouts of that treasure. Or what about the other young star-crossed lovers, who were buried together, after love was denied to them. Notes and letters scatter around the base of their tombs; people asking for divine help in their crumbling amorous relations.
Or have you heard about the man who took the dare from his friends to remain in the cemetery overnight? While he was standing with his back against the mausoleum, the devil himself came from behind him through a small crack and grabbed this poor fellow�s collar. He was found the next morning frozen with terror, insane and finally committed to an asylum for the rest of his short life.
If you�re particularly lucky and happen to be in Guadalajara on the Day of the Dead (November 2), Belen is opened later, pass sunset, for late night drama and puppet shows, in retelling some of the stories. Since the museum is usually closed at three in the afternoon, well before sunset, the darkness may offer another view of the cemetery. Perhaps, the spirits may awaken once again to confirm or deny their own legends.
After walking through the cemetery, you can sit under one of many large trees scattered throughout the cemetery grounds. Despite the macabre of the legends surrounding this place, you can feel the sense of peace and rebirth here. The quietness away from the traffic and the serene shadows that shelter you from the Mexican sun makes this place a kind of oasis from the turbulent world outside the walls of this cemetery. On the other side, a girl celebrates her 15th birthday, dressed in a floral dress with a professional photographer and family tagging behind. It�s a popular spot for girls taking their photos here for celebrating the year they become adults. She smiles brightly at the camera. It�s the beginning of her new life.
Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, is located about eight hours west of Mexico City on bus in the state of Jalisco. Tequila, Mariachi, and Charreado (rodeo) are its claim to fame. The Belen Cemetery is about a 20- minute walk from the historical center and costs 3.50 pesos for admission.
The Belen Cemetery
Belen 684, esquina Euologio Parra
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 am-3 pm.
For more information: Tel. 36 13 77 86
The author, Hauquan Chau, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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