Inspiration behind Hard Bed Hotel

santiago general cemetery contrast

Before writing Hard Bed Hotel, I wanted to collect common stories and local myths from Santiago – in particular, from the General Cemetery of Santiago. The place is amazing, with its huge, elegant mausoleums contrasted by, for example, the more modest sector of the gypsies where pinwheels, bright flags and ornaments decorate the tombs, or by the long, high walls of tombs for the middle-class, which consist of rows upon rows of niches with personalized window fronts. The cemetery is much like a small town with its ‘poor Christ’ at the less affluent end and ‘the rich Christ’ nearer where ex-presidents are laid to rest. The cemetery’s wide paths are lined with huge elms, interspersed with palms, jaracandas and magnolias. Narrow backroads within the cemetery take you past odd tombs, some covered with grafitti-style poems or notes from children, ancient and uncared-for tombs amongst well-kept ones. I became a frequent visitor to the Cemetery just to be amidst its beauty and calm.

I had a plan to create a coffee table book with photos on one page and short stories on facing pages. So I went in search of someone who would be able to relate some contemporary myths and general goings-on in this place. The obvious person would be a cemetery caretaker, of whom there are more than 400 in Santiago’s General Cemetery, the majority women. The caretakers’ positions are informal. They inherit or are assigned a certain number of patios and get paid at the whim of families whose relatives are laid to rest in their sector.

Luckily I found a caretaker called Norma who understood exactly what I was after. She and two of her colleagues agreed to tell stories over lunch at my place. Not only did they talk about how they had inherited their posts from their mothers and how spirits of their ‘muertitos’ protected them from deliquents, but they related how exhausting it was to undo (usually by burning) evidence of curses they sometimes discovered at tombs. They told stories about people who had been buried alive, about how they had witnessed mass burials during the dictatorship. They told stories about ghosts, the tales of which have become common folklore… about a young bride who died at the altar and whose parents set up home in her mausoleum, raising her up each day to brush her hair… about a young man who fell in love with a woman at a bar near the cemetery only to find out that she had died years ago and that he had been dancing with her ghost.

The caretakers also had funny stories about misunderstandings. They talked about tomb-decorating workshops with emphasis on use of found and recycled objects. They revealed stories about their own families and about parties among cemetery workers.

After talking with them, the plan for a coffee table book was replaced with ideas for a fiction novel. One of several Chilean slangs for cemetery is ‘hotel cama dura’, which means ‘hard bed hotel’. So Hard Bed Hotel, started to take shape. Although the main character in the novel is nothing like any of the real caretakers that I met, their stories were the catalyst.

I’ve lost touch with Norma and the others, especially because the General Cemetery was closed during the pandemic. But I hope to find her again on my next visit there. More about Norma’s story in the my next post.