I have a bit of an affinity for graveyards.
As a child, on my family's twice-yearly visits to my grandpa's grave in Somerset, there were three other plots I used to say hello to. None of them were related to me in any way; but one man had died on my birthday, another woman shared my middle name of Alexandra, and the third girl had been as young as me when she'd passed away.
Their graves were close to each other but far from my grandpa's, and it felt solemnly appropriate for my young self to wander down the hill as my mum stood in front of her dad's grave; each of us lost in our own thoughts, paying our respects.
I guess the difference was that I'd never met the people whose graves I visited – but I always had a sense that it was a nice thing to do regardless. There were never flowers laid down when I arrived, and I felt like I might be remembering these people when others no longer thought about them. Keeping their memories alive, if only through their names and birthdays.
Since my mum passed away a few years ago, I've felt even more comfortable in cemeteries. Any semblance of them being creepy or scary places to spend time in has vanished, and now they feel like beautifully welcoming spaces, open and quiet.
I'm able to let my mind wander as easily as my feet, which often choose their own path through the crosses and the trees.
I don't actively search cemeteries out when I travel, though. And I haven't been to many in South America. But one of my friends in Sucre has lived in the city for over six months, and he knows all the best places to visit.
So when he mentioned how perfect the cemetery was for wandering, thinking, reading, writing… I knew I had to go.
A unexpected surprise in Sucre
I've been to many cemeteries in my life. I love the sense of calm, the luxury of absorbing so much history, the chance to be completely alone with your thoughts if you so choose. After talking with my friend, I was expecting the same from Sucre's General Cemetery.
What I wasn't expecting was how beautiful the place would be.
Actually, I didn't know how beautiful a cemetery could be. I know the English style of graveyard – dusty, grey, filled with cobwebs and hidden corners. They're usually a wealth of history and are absolutely fascinating – but they aren't exactly a popular tourist attraction.
From my first entrance through the grand white gates of Sucre's cemetery, however, I realised that death, and the memory of it, is preserved very differently in South America.
Sucre's General Cemetery boasts beautiful, wide open pathways, with trees lining each side. Cool, shaded spots, with benches dotted among the grass. People walking arm in arm, chatting and laughing; like they're enjoying a day in the park, not at the cemetery.
I fell in step with the happy couples, passing family crypts painted white and made even brighter by the mid morning sun – and eventually, I veered off into the emptier parts of the cemetery.
The centre of Sucre is generally pretty busy and loud, but the only sounds I could hear were the water sprinklers; the birds' wings flapping from branch to bough to rooftop; the breeze threading its way through the hundreds of trees that threw dappled shadows onto the pathways.
Walking under these never ending trees I could smell fresh flowers and cut grass, and with each crypt and grave I passed, my mind settled and my breathing grew calmer.
After a whirlwind few weeks, I realised my thoughts had been working overtime for so long they'd forgotten how to run at a normal pace.
Apparently it took a place like this cemetery, with its twisting walls, hidden corners, and numerous spots for contemplation, for me to take some time out and appreciate a place for what it is.
In all its calm, quiet beauty.
Taking care of the dead in South America
Bolivian burial traditions are somewhat different to those in England and the US. When somebody dies, their family pays for a vault: $10,000 for seven years. After those seven years, the corpse is moved from the vault into a plot in the ground, and after a further twenty years, the remains are removed from the cemetery completely.
This means the vast majority of the cemetery is filled with walls of vaults, organised in regular rows; six levels, all holding the bodies of the recently deceased. Every vault is fronted by a covered shrine, allowing the family of the deceased to leave mementos and offerings.
It's amazing how quickly you can build an impression of someone based on the design of their shrine and the offerings placed inside. Each one has a different story; frames are made from glass, metal, bordered with tiles or painted around the edges, and some are even equipped with canvas awnings to protect them from the sun.
The insides of the shrines hold cigarettes, tiny liquor bottles, statues, photographs, prayers, photographs, letters, and flowers – all pieces of memorabilia placed by family members, to illustrate the things these people loved the most.
A strange discovery was that children aren't buried with their parents in Bolivia. Instead, they are buried with numerous other children in a special section of the cemetery.
Their shrines are probably the most affecting – filled with toys, cars, dolls, miniature Coke bottles and stickers.
The children's shrines usually hold many more mementos than the rest; almost as if their families couldn't bear to leave anything out. It's at once both beautiful and terribly sad to see.
I spent so long among the walls of shrines that it was a complete surprise when I turned a corner to see a vast field of traditional burial mounds, each one marked with a shrine and cross. The graves here were older, and the flowers less fresh.
Just across from this sea of graves was a collection of half built structures, where builders were constructing the next sets of vaults. And when I took a closer look, I realised that the very same structures already housed occupants on their lowest levels.
In Sucre, even as various vaults change hands and names, the cemetery keeps on expanding and growing. Preparing more vacant spaces for those to come.
But honestly, I think there's beautiful in taking the time to remember those who've passed on, even if I never knew them. There's a reason that family and friends spend time and repeated effort tending to a shrine. We bring fresh flowers and remove the old, wilting bunches; take tissues and wipe away the marks of dirt and dust.
We make things look presentable, and it's not just for the sake of the one we loved and lost.
There's an intrinsic need to strive to look our best – and when someone passes on and can't maintain this same impression, the duty falls to us.
These markers don't just show a person's name and the dates they entered and left this world. They tell a story; of the life each person lived, their passions and their vices, and the details that made them unique.
Every square is a memorial to somebody different – the impact of which is intensified when you realise just how many walls of vaults there are in the cemetery; thousands of families who've lost someone. But at the same time, these never-ending memorials are a testament to how many people are still being remembered.
So many stories. So much love.