A graveyard with a curious history

Leslie Thompson admires the tomb of one of the most famous graves in the cemetery.
Leslie Thompson admires the tomb of one of the most famous graves in the cemetery. / T. BRYANT
  • A new English language tour of the cemetery in Benalmádena will focus on the tombs of the famous residents

Some people may not relish the thought of spending their leisure time in a cemetery, especially when they are enjoying their holidays, but Leslie Thompson, a local undertaker, believes he can change this.

Leslie, who works for the Francisco Camero funeral directors in Benalmádena, has decided to offer guided tours around the International Cemetery in Benalmádena. His aim is to educate culturally minded locals and tourists in the history of the cemetery, while highlighting some of its most distinguished residents.

Opened in January 1969, the secluded necropolis is situated above the town's old bullring and has panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the coastline.

The cemetery has no religious restrictions, and so Muslims, Catholics, Jews and atheists are buried alongside each other.

“This is an international cemetery, so anyone can be buried here. Although there are a few Muslim graves in the main part of the cemetery, there is also a separate Muslim burial ground,” Leslie tells SUR in English.

Many of the first burials were of the bones of people who had previously been laid to rest in the old cemetery in Arroyo de la Miel. Some were also transferred from the former graveyard of the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church in Benalmádena Pueblo.

“Burials are no longer authorised in the old cemetery in Arroyo de la Miel. The area is being cleared for development, so all of the bones will eventually be reburied here,” Leslie says.

For his tours, which will be conducted in English, Leslie will concentrate on some of the more famous people who are interred in the graveyard, and these include a diverse collection of national and international celebrities.

One of the most impressive tombs is that of Argentine singer and actress, Imperio Argentina, who died in 2003. Imperio's career spanned more than 50 years and she became one of Spain's most admired stars, although she was often criticised for her apparent allegiance to the fascist regime.

Ivor Emmanuel, a Welsh singer and actor probably best remembered for his role as Private Owen in the 1964 movie, Zulu, was laid to rest in the cemetery in 2007 .

Others are Slavko Vorkapich, a prominent figure of modern cinematography in America during the early and mid-20th century; and Paul Lukas, a Hungarian-born actor honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Although his ashes are not in the cemetery, celebrated Cuban jazz pianist and band leader, Bebo Valdes, was cremated here in 2013.

There is also a rumour that one of the actors from 1939 movie, Gone with the Wind, is interred here, but Leslie says he has yet to confirm this.

Among the more curious stories hidden in the cemetery are those of the tomb of Jaromir Hanush, an international scientist known as one of the 'fathers of the atomic bomb', and Martha Chippendale, the wife of John Douglas Williams. Williams was the chauffeur of the car that was carrying President John F. Kennedy on the day he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. However, why his wife is buried here is another mystery that Leslie intends to uncover.

“A lot of British and American celebrities came to Benalmádena to escape the pressures of their trades, but I have yet to find out why Martha Chippendale is here,” Leslie says, looking mystified.

He came up with the idea of the guided tours several years ago, but the project never really got off the ground. However, after careful planning and plenty of research, he is now ready to offer the first tour, which will take place at 11am on Saturday 16 June.

The one-hour tour, which is free, will begin with a brief talk concerning the history of the cemetery, followed by a guided tour of the gardens and tombs. Visitors will also enjoy light refreshments and the chance to ask questions.