SAO PAULO — Cemeteries are rarely considered places of beauty and pleasure. The one in the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Jardim Angela was also grim for another reason, considering that in 1996 the UN ranked it the most violent urban region in the world. But now a part of this graveyard is bringing some smiles and levity, doubling as a place of leisure and art for visitors.
In a region that still bears the marks of poverty, with bare brick houses, some of which have illegal connections to water and electricity networks, this private cemetery called Parque das Cerejeiras (Cherry Trees Park) has been turned into an artistic landmark of sorts.
"The locals have few options when it comes to culture and leisure in the neighborhood," says Daniel Arantes, the cemetery's manager. The well-equipped urban parks Burle Marx and Ibirapuera are 15 and 30 kilometers away, respectively. But these places actually have one notable thing in common with Parque das Cerejeiras: They boast benches designed by artist Hugo França.
Arantes first fell in love with França's creations during a visit to the Inhotim contemporary art museum in the Minas Gerais state and decided to contact him for a one-of-a-kind request: to turn the cemetery's eucalyptus trees into a new series of his famous benches. Parque das Cerejeiras now displays the second-largest collection of França's works, with 22 pieces.
França transforms fallen or dead trees into what he calls sculptural furniture. "Wood is too much of a noble raw material to be wasted, and its natural decomposition is toxic," he says.
The artist tries to make the most of the trees' natural organic form, which is also intended to raise awareness and educate people about ecology, waste and sustainability. He didn't think twice about Arantes' offer. "I thought it was a great idea to produce works for a cemetery," he says.
But Parque das Cerejeiras has much more to offer visitors. Among its other artistic initiatives is the Bosque das Palavras (the Words' Wood) designed by Ale Bufe, where the words of the sentiments most represented on the tribute wall are forged in steel and displayed in the garden. For those who prefer verses, there's also a selection of poems from Carlos Drummond engraved on large plates.
The right place for introspection
França believes contemporary art's first function is to inspire reflection. And this matches perfectly with the naturally introspective atmosphere of a cemetery. "The relationship between people in an environment such as Parque das Cerejeiras is different from that in usual cemeteries," França says. "This helps people's understanding of death because associating death with something ugly is different from associating it with something grand and beautiful."
He says he believes in death as an end, as opposed to a passage between one dimension to another. "I'm an atheist and a materialist," he explains.
França's heaviest piece of art is here in Parque das Cerejeiras. It weighs a stunning 17 tons, the result of the fusion between two enormous stumps standing upside down. There's another significant work, a geometrical form that looks to the sky. According to the creator, this is a way of indicating spirituality, of having a common sense of associating death and the sky.
The Inhotim museum is a constant source of inspiration for Daniel Arantes to mix art and landscape architecture. Other cemeteries outside Brazil have also inspired his imagination, such as Forest Lawn in Los Angeles and Parque Del Recuerdo in Chile.
Parque das Cerejeiras looks like a recreational park, and that's exactly how locals think of it. People in the neighborhood come here on weekends, and just-married couples visit the park to take their wedding photos.
"It offers a splendid view," says Karina Souza da Silva, who's been living in the area for 23 years. "When people step on the lawn, they don't think they're in a cemetery. They believe it's just a park."
She says her grandfather spent his entire life in Jardim Angela and bought a plot in the cemetery when it was founded in 1993. "He always talked about how the only proper and beautiful place he would have been in was the one where his body would be laid to rest," she explains. "For visitors, there's no prejudice about this place being a cemetery. Everybody feels good here."
The park also has animals, fruit trees and a huge magnolia tree. "The cemetery doesn't need to be a sad-looking place," Arantes says. "It can be a welcoming place, one full of life."
Parque das Cerejeiras still remains a rarity, with future projects to include a orchidarium, an amphitheater and a butterfly garden. "The life cycle of a butterfly has a lot in common with ours," Arantes says.