Cuzco Cemetery

Por Mario Vargas Llosa


As we are born to die, death lasts much longer than life, and the cemetery, where we go to rest through all eternity, is our true home. Our house, our neighborhood, our village, are merely temporary stopping places, inns or hostels along the way. The cemetery, on the other hand, is a permanent residence, the one where a Christian will lie forever.


We are not afraid of death. Why would we be? Fear is for those who live very well here on earth, with no worries or misfortunes in this all-too-quickly-passing life. It is easy to understand why for those who have everything–health, steady work, wealth, pastimes, security—death, with its uncertainties and mysteries, would seem a threat. But for someone whose life is a valley of pain from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb until the day he is buried, death is a solution, a time of rest. It can’t be any worse than this, so it will have to be better. And that is why we don’t fear death; just the opposite, we rub elbows with her all the time, in fact, we think of her as a friend. That’s why, I guess, we are so religious, because religion teaches us that what is truly important is not this frail flesh that clothes us and cloaks our soul, but what is immortal in us, what will live on forever when our wretched body is eaten by worms.


And that must also be the reason why we take such good care of our cemeteries. To have a good burial, if possible with a well-attended wake, a strong, tight, nicely-painted coffin, and a niche of your own with space to light a candle, hang a cross, a color photograph, a Baby Jesus or a Virgin and a Saint, a place where visitors can leave bouquets of flowers…that is the highest aspiration of anyone who still has his dignity.


My family does, we have our dignity. And here is the proof: this altar we have built on my grandfather’s grave. There, reduced to the essential, is everything he loved: the saints of his devotions, his scapular, his missal, his diplomas, his medals, and the wax flowers he had on his night table. Even the broken mirror he used every Sunday when he shaved to go to mass. I don’t really remember my grandfather because he died before I was born. But I have heard my mother and my relatives talk about him so much that I feel I knew him. When I come to the cemetery to pray for him, I feel sad, and tears come to my eyes. Besides, at any moment now it will be my turn to die, so I know I will meet him soon. “Hello, grandfather,” I will say. And he will answer: “Hello, granddaughter. I’ve been waiting for you.”