Savvy tourists already know the place, and a project announced Thursday will make the Cementerio General into a museum that will attract more.
The cemetery sits on a hill adjacent to what is now Avenida 10 in western San José. The project to restore that cemetery and make the location more attractive to locals and tourists alike is the latest in the Salvemos Nuestro Patrimonio Histórico Arquitectónico competition.
Two architects, Carolina Hernández González and Julián Mora Sáenz, put together the proposal. They had presented the project in earlier competitions but did not win.
This time they will receive 120 million colons, about $225,000, to bring their vision to reality. The concept is to restore tombs and mausoleums, create open space for visitors and to provide signage.
The cemetery is one of several in the same area. There is the adjacent workers cemetery and a cemetery reserved for those of the Jewish faith. There also is a special cemetery for foreigners who died here. Many were involved with supervising the building of the railroad in the 19th century.
The Cementerio General covers 80,700 square meters or nearly 20 acres. It dates from the 1840s when the area was very rural. There are at least 300,000 persons buried there. They include former presidents, writers, poets and other luminaries as well as average citizens. Many families have constructed elaborate tombs for their deceased members. Some have fallen into disrepair due to the changes in family fortunes or numbers.
The cemetery and those adjacent are a favorite place for news people to illustrate the Costa Rican version of the Day of the Dead, the Dia de los Santos Difuntos or the day of the deceased saint. Saray Ramírez Vindas photographed the area and wrote a detailed pair of articles in 2005.
The architectural contest is organized by the Centro de Investigación y Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural of the culture ministry.
Usually the contest jury selects a history building to help finance the restoration. In the case
of the Cementerio General, the panel appears to have been taken by the historic implications and tourism potential.
Historians Carlos Manuel Zamora Hernández and Santiago Quesada Vanegas published a book, “Cementerio General – Ciudad de San José” in 2009 that provides the basis for the restoration project. The cemetery is administered by the Junta de Protecion Social, the lottery agency.
The tradition of elaborate family tombs has faded, and even the most notables are buried with a simple marker now. The 19th and 20th century marble work at the Cementerio General and other cemeteries in the country are classics. Clearly this is the importation of European tradition.
The Centro de Investigación noted that restoring historic cemeteries as a tourism site has been successful in Cuba.
Even before restoration begins, the cemetery is open to the public and anyone may wander along the paths and visit the below-ground crypt. The cemetery is not far from the municipal building.