Not many cemeteries qualify as tourist destinations. Arlington comes to mind, and Normandy. The Pyramids. But in 1936, in a nondescript and little-known town on the Ecuador-Colombia border, José Maria Franco had an idea. Maybe it’s what happens to the mind of a cemetery caretaker in the thin air at 9700 feet. For whatever reason, José Franco began to clip.
Tulcán has a reputation, probably undeserved, as a rough-and-tumble city just 7 kilometers from the frontier between two countries with an often hostile past. It is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and deep valleys with rushing rivers, and green fields at precarious angles. There are deep wells and hot springs. But it’s best known for its elaborate burial ground.
Mr. Franco was in charge of a cemetery that was only four years old, replacing an earlier one damaged by an earthquake. The soil in the new 20-acre location happened to be rich in calcium carbonate, and perfect for the cypress trees he trained and shaped over the years into a menagerie of colossal living figures. There are forms from ancient mythology of Rome and Egypt, and giant heads depicting the county’s indigenous forebears. There are animals, arches, tunnels, symbols, and geometric designs.
The expanse became known as Escultura en Verde del Campo Santo—Sculpture in Green of the Holy Field; “holy field” being another term for “cemetery.” Poke through delicate shapes into the dense cypress foliage and you find venerable trunks a foot in diameter, attesting to more than 75 years of nonstop sculpting. A small crew clips to the end of the grounds and starts over, like those who never stop painting the Golden Gate Bridge.
There’s more. Acres of grassy meadows are lined with headstones and covered with bright flowers—all fresh. Multi-story crypts, blazing white in the equatorial sun, hold many hundreds of the departed, each vault individually decorated with mementos and religious artifacts. They look like apartment buildings in the distance.
The cemetery is one of the largest topiary gardens in the world, and a functioning graveyard not reserved for the aristocracy. Some of the crypt buildings carry signs for the taxi drivers’ union, or the merchants of the local San Miguel market. A thriving fresh flower business has developed just outside the gates, where vendors offer cut flowers with stems soaked in pigments that rise through the stalks and give the blooms vibrant colors that nature never envisioned.
An American garden designer named Jeffrey Bale wrote of his visit, “We came upon a crew of three men with tall ladders and old fashioned clipping shears working hard on a towering hedge. They erected poles at the corners of hedges and strung lines to guide the trimming. From the quiet and methodical way they worked it looked as if they had been doing it for a very long time. Perhaps someday they will be invited to die here.”
That last remark is a reference to the epitaph of Mr. Franco, who died in 1985 after a lifetime among the cypress sculptures, at the age of 85. His sons took over, and he is buried in the cemetery that he turned into a modern marvel in the Andes. His tombstone reads, “A cemetery so beautiful, it invites one to die.”