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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Cemitério dos Prazeres in Lisbon

What is Cemitério dos Prazeres?

Cemitério dos Prazeres, or Prazeres Cemetery in English, is one of the largest cemeteries in Lisbon containing 7,000 funerary monuments, which was founded in the mid-19th century.

Prazeres Cemetery graves and view of bridge

Cemitério dos Prazeres History

Prazeres Cemetery, one of the largest burial grounds in Lisbon, was built in 1833 while Portugal was enduring a period of civil war. In that year, the city was struck by a major cholera outbreak. As in many other cities across Europe, it became obligatory, for sanitary reasons, to lay the dead to rest in a purpose-built cemetery, despite the objections of a population that was used to burying their loved ones in sacred ground, such as that surrounding churches and convents. Prior to it becoming a peaceful burial ground, this area was formerly a space devoted to public celebrations, which continued to be held among the many mausoleums until eventually the practice was forbidden by law. In fact, the cemetery’s name is a relic of that time, since prazeres means ‘pleasures’ in Portuguese. The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, writing in the 1860s, found the name a source of amusement, saying: ‘One could [almost] believe that a humourist had christened the place’.

After you pass through the exquisite wrought-iron entrance gates that bear designs alluding to death and rebirth, you’ll notice that the cemetery’s memorials all comprise standalone funerary monuments arranged in blocks, like the plan of a small city. Romanticist cemeteries like Prazeres afforded the newly emerging Portuguese bourgeoisie an opportunity to express their social status through the construction of impressive and elegant tombs, and thus you’ll find all sorts of wonderful decorative features and embellishments on show.

Prazeres Cemetery mausoleums

Dominating the central area is the stately mid-19th-century chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres (or Our Lady of Pleasures), which contains an old autopsy room and where various objects dedicated to funeral rituals are kept. Encircling the chapel is a network of 7,000 tombs and the largest concentration of cypress trees on the Iberian Peninsula, which delineate the paths and help create a serene atmosphere throughout the 12-hectare area.

Unsurprisingly, many important figures in the history of Portugal are interred here, their lives celebrated in artistic monuments created by renowned architects and sculptors. Perhaps the most notable funerary structure is the pyramid-shaped mausoleum of the Dukes of Palmela, the largest private building of this kind in Europe, where about 200 people rest. The monument, whose layout was inspired by Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, was built in the 1840s by the first Duke of Palmela, Pedro de Sousa Holstein, the country’s first modern prime minister.

Numerous celebrated figures from Portuguese art and culture also found their final resting place here, the majority of whom are to be found in an area called the Talhão dos Artistas (or Plot of Artists). These include the poet Cesário Verde, known for his tribute poetry to Lisbon, the actor Vasco Santana, famed for his humour, and the talented guitarist Carlos Paredes.

The peaceful setting of Prazeres Cemetery is full of remarkable stories that are very present in Lisbon’s imagination.

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