Dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the San Juan Cemetery in Puerto Rico’s capital was originally intended as the burial ground for the country’s war veterans. Although some may find it morbid, the cemetery is actually one of the most photographed spots in San Juan because of its immaculate white glow amidst the shadow of the 16th century El Morro, the first lighthouse built in Puerto Rico.
Cemeteries were built outside cities for sanitary reasons in the olden times, the reason why this San Juan cemetery was constructed between the ocean and the city’s fortified wall. Officially known as the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis, many prominent Puerto Rico residents and locals are interred in this Spanish colonial era burial ground.
These famous men and women include nationalists Lolita Lebron and Pedro Albizu Campos, actress Norma Candal, Jose Celso Barbosa who founded the statehood movement for Puerto Rico, “father” of public school education in Puerto Rico Rafael Cordero, and actor Jose Ferrer, husband of Rosemary Clooney, father of actor Miguel Ferrer and uncle, by marriage, to actor George Clooney.
The Circular Chapel with the Red Dome
The cemetery, just outside the walls of the old fortress of San Felipe del Morro, is packed with marble tombs as well as magnificent monuments set against an immense stretch of clear blue waters. With a width between 15 and 20 feet, the average height of these walls is 40 feet. The cemetery’s location was the result of the old belief that there should be a clear separation of life and death.
According to Chaplain-Director Rafael Rodriguez of the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, the cemetery was built overlooking the ocean as a symbol of the soul’s journey of crossing over to the afterlife. Now, this San Juan cemetery has become of the world’s most beautiful burial grounds with its pristine white elaborately-designed tombstones and circular chapel with a red dome.
No Criminals in the Cemetery
Divided into two areas of old and new, the cemetery has a beautiful white-and-yellow-painted gate and life-sized sculptures and busts in marble of the people interred there. Contrasting colors – the Atlantic’s blue, the brown of the city’s walls, the white burial tombstones, and an assortment of hues of flowers – make the cemetery ground a photographer’s dream.
Visitors to the cemetery can hear the ocean’s waves and the whistles of the trade winds, the only sounds that break the peaceful stillness of the place. One other tidbit about the San Juan cemetery is that an infamous pirate named Roberto Cofresí – executed in 1825 outside the walls of El Morro — was refused burial here because authorities have never allowed criminals to be interred here.
Be Safe When You Visit the Cemetery
Beautiful and moving inscriptions can be found etched on the marble tombstones in this cemetery such as “no lloreis, rogad por mi, voy a unir me con Dios, yos espero en el cielo,” roughly translated to “do not weep (but) pray for me (since) I am with God waiting for you here in heaven.” Winged angels, weeping angels, and guardian angels of marble stand on or sit beside some tombstones.
What other cemetery in the world is located near the ocean? This San Juan cemetery honoring Mary Magdalene is a must-see on your travel to Puerto Rico. A word of caution, though, don’t visit the place after nightfall since Puerto Rico’s La Perla, notorious for its street crimes, is alongside the coast right before this cemetery. Check the government’s official website for safety information.