August 7, 2016 by The Atlas Team
Come for the Cypresses, Stay for the Dead: The Cemetery of Pleasure (Cemitério dos Prazeres)
Before the grounds were converted into a cemetery, it was a collective of farms by the name of Quinta dos Prazeres in which you could find gardens, vineyards and orchards. It’s location, with a stunning view of the Tejo, was indeed noble, as it is positioned near Dom Pedro II’s Royal Palace in Alcântara and the frequent royal parties that went with it.
In the sixteenth century, things changed a bit. Epidemics like smallpox, the plague, and yellow fever swept through Lisboa, which made the idea of rubbing elbows a little unsettling.
The farm was converted into a refuge for those suffering from these diseases until finally, thanks to the cholera morbus epidemic in the 1830s, it was designated as a final resting place for the upper echelons of society with a top-shelf price tag to match. It was run by the nuns at the strangely-named Convento de Boa Morte (Good Death Convent) until 1834.
As a result, Lisbon has an amazing Romantic-period cemetery with free entry for the living.
The monuments, mausoleums, and tombs are arranged in a city-like grid of avenues (there is a map available in the office) lined with the oldest and largest concentration of Cupressus sempervirens (cypresses) on the Iberian Peninsula. The earliest of tombs were built for the most important families in the capital, so it’s not surprising that various displays of wealth stand out. Suffice it to say that in death, the elite were still intent on keeping up with the Joneses, though money certainly didn’t buy all of them good taste.
Buried here are authors, builders, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers – the works. You can experience the cultural heritage of Lisbon on a self-guided tour of sites bedecked by sculptures and try to determine the meaning of all the different symbols marking the graves. There are recurring symbols like the hourglass (a symbol of death and immortality) the bat wings vs. angel wings (good vs. evil? vice versa?), or the various masonic and professional symbols of the residents, some of which remain a mystery.
Among the residents of the cemetery is Carvalho Monteiro, the millionaire who built the Quinta da Regaleira Palace in Sintra. His Italian marble mausoleum mixes Romantic and the neo-Manueline styles and can be found just left of the main entrance and close to the Prazeres church.
Former residents include the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. His mortal remains were transferred to the cloisters of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in 1895. Also, Lisbon’s favorite fadista, Amália Rodrigues was buried here until she was moved in 2001 to the Panteão Nacional.
One of the more fascinating things to see is the tomb of Professor Alix Lesgards (1876 – 1919) who was originally from Toulouse. The reason this tomb is significant is not because of the individual buried inside, it’s the stone figure mourning the loss. This is regarded as Lisbon’s first (and certainly not last) nude funerary statue on record. Leave it to the French.
You don’t have to schedule a visit to walk around the grounds, but there are many guided thematic tours offered by the graveyard focusing on the history of the cemetery, great men of Lisbon (and some women!), architecture, sculpture, freemasonry, and more. To schedule one of these, you can email, telephone, or just show up.
The cemetery grounds offer several different concentrations by profession as well as the side-by-side family plots that seemingly have no rhyme or reason. There are two Deposits of Writers, the Field of Artists, the Field of Public Security Police, and the Field of the Fire Brigade. It really is like a city inside a city – except no one will yell at you to go back to your neighborhood here. Except the cats.
Inside The Chapel of Joy (Cappella dos Prazeres), you can see the old autopsy room (no longer in use, thank heavens) and, since 2001, a museum where you can check out period pieces, items linked to the cult of death, crucifixes, figurines of saints, and more.
How to get there: