Antonio Delgado 2005

University of Beira Interior, Portugal

The aesthetics of death: freedom and individualisation in the funeral art of Portuguese cemeteries of the 19th and 20th centuries

Here I want to look at funeral art as it may be seen in Portuguese public cemeteries designed in the 19th century, with some attention to the changes in outlook and urban planning that occurred in the late 18th. It was these changes that converted the cemetery into a new symbolic structure within the urban space. The cemetery we know today arose from the hygienic precepts of that earlier time. In Portugal the emergence of public cemeteries entailed complications and indeed social conflict, the reason being that Catholicism dominated the individual conscience. The Church held a monopoly over death and salvation. The new urban ordinances secularized the cemeteries, making them public and declaring them the only structures for the interment of bodies, in the same way that they established the space for individual burial. In this sense the less wealthy were able to assert themselves, for now each individual was entitled, as heroes had been in the past, to be glorified and to transcend the moment and memory of death. With the cemetery of the 19th century there came into being the civic cult of the dead.  The cemetery became a place where one could stroll and, through the medium of the funeral monument and epitaphs attesting to his or her moral and civic virtues, commune with the deceased. It was a museum that educated and catechized, while also it was a place of common liberty. In addition, the cemetery became a new field for architecture and other forms of art, an area for the display of styles and forms, a space of vast metaphorical significance that reflected not only aesthetic tastes but also the conflicting games and forces of Portuguese society over the last two centuries.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract