Panteón de Los San Juanes, the oldest and largest cemetery in La Paz, is not found on tourist maps even though it is heaven on earth for photographers. The dearly departed lie undisturbed in a quiet neighborhood in the back of town in a breathlessly hot valley surrounded by jagged dessert mountains. I set out with friends on foot to climb a long set of stairs for a view of the city with no idea what to expect. Once over the top I thought were looking down at a massive ghetto, but what at first appeared to be acres of tiny homes in disrepair were instead row up row of crypts. When it dawned on me the miniature city was the final resting place for the dead, rather than abject squalor for the living an odd moment of relief washed over me.
Walking through cemeteries is a reminder our time is limited. Grave diggers moved slowly in the heat or sat quietly in the shade. The crypts ascend in age the further you walk. And the numbers of children’s graves certainly speak to a harsher life. Some family lines must have vanished as neglect coupled with entropy left many crypts and markers in the older section worn, broken and forgotten. Still, the craftsmanship was not lost, until we walked even further. The more recent dates revealed the gradual death of artistry as well. The graves and crypts turned from carved stone and wood to simple, clean lines of cement and cinder block. The newest structures, painted in bright, happy colors looked like a day care center, giving none of the somber feeling cemeteries usually inspire. However, they were highly effective as a reminder that life is a celebration.
We stood in the shade of a dusty, gnarled tree to escape the midday sun, which was hot enough to spontaneously combust body hair. Even fake flowers appeared dry and wilted. The patina of dust equalized the elaborate and humble structures in monochromatic brown earth, as if the power of man to stratify between rich and poor turned out to be a silly waste of time in the end. I suggested we go find something to eat. There’s nothing like a stroll among the deceased to work up an appetite.