Photo by Amanda August
Dr Farreras i Framis tomb
Dr Farreras i Framis was buried in Montjuïc cemetery in 1888; his tomb has a life-size skeleton sculpture on top
You don’t have to be a hardened goth or a fan of the ubiquitous Twilight series to get your kicks out of walking around a cemetery at night.
While it’s true that the bats flying overhead add to the spooky mood, the moonlit tour of Poblenou cemetery focuses much more on life than death, with history, art and architecture being the main themes, rather than ghosts and ghouls.
In the company of guides dressed up as 19th-century gatekeepers and bourgeois ladies and gentlemen, and to the accompaniment of live classical violin music, it isn’t difficult to get into the spirit of the occasion as you wander along the paths lined with hundreds of burial niches and stand before mausoleums the size of small chapels. The faces of serene angels and saints are illuminated by candlelight—and with them, it has to be said, the occasional skull and fearsome gargoyle.
It’s a unique way to go back in time to Barcelona as it was between 1819 (when Poblenou cemetery opened) and 1888—a time that was marked by numerous epidemics, industrial advances, new fortunes, economic crisis, scientific discoveries and revolutions in the city. The evidence of these social, economic and political happenings can all be found in the cemetery’s design, development, facilities and, of course, the stories behind some of the people buried here. Montjuïc cemetery, which opened in 1883, continues the timeline of events, with evidence of the cultural, and later political, Catalan Renaixença (Renaissance), the Modernisme art movement, more revolutions, the rise of anarchism, general strikes, fascism and the Civil War.
Visiting these cemeteries provides a real insight into the impact of historical events on the city and its people, whether you brave the night-time tour of Poblenou or join one of the Sunday daytime tours of both that run throughout the year.
Originally designed by Italian architect Antonio Ginesi, Poblenou cemetery was inaugurated in 1819 and located almost a mile away from the city, outside its walls, meaning a 30-minute walk through undeveloped land inhabited by wolves to get there. Its location made it unpopular, as did the fact that the population had been accustomed to having deceased loved ones nearby and still a part of their daily lives when buried in the graveyards next to parish churches. Yet Ginesi’s plan for the cemetery was very much in line with the society of the time and took into account the new moral values and social ideas that were developing through the economic growth in Barcelona from new commerce and industry.
Unfortunately, Ginesi died within five years of its opening, and his full plan never came to completion. The cemetery today is the result of various reforms and developments that have taken place over the years. One of the most important differences to Ginesi’s original design is the section of mausoleums, which was constructed between 1848 and 1852. Ginesi’s vision had been influenced by the growing idea of social equality at the start of the 19th century, which came on the back of the French Revolution, and he reflected this vision by introducing the use of burial niches for all classes except the poor, who were buried in a communal grave. However, by the middle of the century Barcelona’s new bourgeoisie wanted to show off their wealth and social status. One way they did this was by having a new section added to the cemetery where they could have mausoleums designed and built by the most important architects and master builders of the time, featuring sculptures and applied arts such as stained glass, mosaic, and bronze and iron work by well-known artists. Examples of neo-Classic, neo-Gothic, neo-Byzantine, Modernisme and eclectic architecture and art are all on display—indeed it can feel more like an open-air museum than a cemetery.
Two mausoleums that particularly stand out for their grandeur are the neo-Gothic works of architect Josep Oriol Mestres Esplugas, who was responsible for Barcelona Cathedral’s façade. They feature work by the sculptor Joan Roig Solé whose angels, apostles and prophets can also be seen on that same façade.
The cemetery has its curiosities, too, such as El Beso de la Muerte (The Kiss of Death), one of its most famous sculptures. This striking marble work by Jaume Barba, depicts Death as a winged skeleton who is seen to be kissing the life from a young male; the inscription is a verse by the poet Jacint Verdaguer.
Another peculiarity is the shrine to El Santet (The Little Saint). Little is known about the popular saint Francesc Canals Ambrós, who died aged 22 in 1899, except that he came from a humble background and was kind and charitable. Devotees pray to him for miracles, believing that he helps those in need, and lit candles, letters, photos, flowers, even cuddly toys are left at his niche. His shrine is now made up of 20 niches as families have given up their own to it over the years.
In response to an ever-increasing population and a stream of epidemics of yellow fever, cholera and typhus between 1821 and 1870, the new cemetery of Montjuïc was inaugurated in 1883, presided over by Barcelona mayor at the time, Francesc Rius i Taulet. He would later be buried here himself, in 1890.
Architect Leandre Albareda envisaged a monument of monuments, and while visitors today can appreciate a symmetry and elegance in its design, as was the case with Ginesi’s plan for Poblenou cemetery before him, much of Albareda’s plan didn’t see the light of day because of political and economic pressures.
The cemetery, however, quickly became an important social and cultural reference for the city’s elite: families who were making their fortunes in business, industry and finance. Predominantly located in a section that is sometimes referred to as the Passeig de Gràcia of Montjuïc cemetery, their mausoleums are truly monumental, complete with chapels, ornate altars, sarcophagi and life-size marble sculptures.
Alongside such splendour are simpler yet no less striking tombstones. Of particular note are the realist life-size sculptures on the tombs of Nicolau Juncosa and Dr Farreras i Framis. The first is of Death as a skeleton, covered with a shroud, resting its hand comfortingly on the shoulder of the deceased. The second has a shrouded skeleton lying on top of the tomb. In sharp contrast to these are the omnipresent angels, on the whole looking serene and in poses that imply protection for the deceased and comfort for the grieving family, but occasionally portraying absolute desolation.
Interestingly, the graves of personalities who are buried here—for example Joan Gamper (founder of Barcelona Football Club), Ramon Casas (artist), Ildefons Cerdà (urban engineer who designed the Eixample) and Isaac Albéniz (pianist and composer)—tend to be fairly unassuming. In the case of the Surrealist artist Joan Miró, the small arched family vault in which he is buried almost surprises with its conventionalism.
The grave of the ex-president of the Generalitat Lluís Companys, however, is another story. Companys was executed under Franco on October 15th, 1940 and every year on the anniversary of his death, the Generalitat and political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, of which Companys was leader, organise a memorial that attracts crowds to his grave to lay flowers. His tomb sits within a small lake in the Fossar de la Pedrera, the area of the cemetery that was once a clandestine communal grave for others who were executed under Franco but which today is a peaceful memorial to them.
The next night-time guided tour of Poblenou Cemetery will be on October 27th. For more information about it and the daytime tours on Sundays at both cemeteries, contact Cemetiris de Barcelona: www.cbsa.es; 902 079 799.
Poblenou Cemetery—Avinguda Icària; Bus: 14, 26, 36 and 41. Metro: Llacuna (L4). Open 8am to 6pm. Free tours first and third Sundays of the month in Castilian or Catalan.
Montjuïc Cemetery—Mare de Déu del Port 56-58; Bus: 21 and 107 (runs Sundays and holidays only). Open 8am to 6pm. Free guided tours on the second and fourth Sunday each month, in Castilian or Catalan.