There were clusters of different tombs from various eras made from white marble and grey granite. The doors and some walls were partly made of glass and you could see inside. I was quite taken aback when I discovered that instead of the coffins being hidden, encased in stone they were visible, stacked on shelves for everyone to see. Some mausoleums contained as many as six coffins which had sat there for 60 years and were visibly disintegrating. I’d never seen coffins exposed like this before. In China they place coffins on makeshift shelves on a secluded cliff-face but I had never seen bare coffins in a cemetery before, certainly not in Europe. There was no attempt to hide them, and seeing them so displayed was stark and raw. But I did appreciate the openness, and that no attempt had been made to cover them up. Following a cholera epidemic in 1855, the humble Agramonte cemetery had acted as a mere burial ground for the vast number of victims. A few years later monuments began to spring up and the cemetery grew in size and importance to become Porto’s grandest cemetery.
During the first half of the 19th century, it was believed that the souls of the dead would wander and haunt the living. So as to protect themselves and allow the souls to rest, elaborate funerals steeped in ritual were held and continue to this day. In some rural parts of Portugal, church bells toll announcing a death in the town or village, and the doors to the deceased’s family home are opened for visitors. They handle the deceased with the greatest care, firstly bathing the body, then cutting the hair, dressing it in the finest clothes or a shroud, and placing it in a coffin for viewing. Farewell ceremonies, in the manner of Irish Catholic wakes, take place in the house of the deceased. The priest, family and friends gather to eat, drink, and offer comfort. They will mourn and wail beside the body. The next day the funeral is held in the local church and the deceased is buried in the local cemetery. Villages all belong to a ‘burial society’, a charity that helps pay for the funeral and the commemorative masses. A widow will usually wear black for two years but may carry on for the rest of her life. Other family members wear black for three months, or up to two years – depending on the closeness of their relationship to the deceased.
The Portuguese believe that they will be sent either to hell, purgatory or heaven when they die.
Heaven is a place where populated with saints, angels and God, and where they believe they will be reunited with their loved ones. There has, however, been a rise in families using spirit guides and medium to communicate with the dead.