“Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens’ claws.” ~ Jim Morrison
Havana’s Colón Cemetery is the second-largest in the world taking up 56 hectares, as well as the final resting place of over two million souls. One of these souls is Margarita, Sandy’s Cuban mother-in-law.
Most tourists visit the cemetery for the historical significance and the funerary monuments, ornate sculptures, and mausoleums. We were privileged to visit the cemetery in search of Margarita’s ashes. Yet, the search led us to an unexpected discovery of how the poor are buried in Cuba.
The varied architectural styles of the graves are a fascinating reflection of the golden age of Cuba. Now, many of the graves are in a state of disrepair because the families fled before the revolution and abandoned the graves of their loved ones.
Those who can afford to decorate the graves of their loved ones embellish the crypts with fresh flowers and small tokens of remembrances. For those who can’t afford the upkeep of the graves, the story is quite different.
Meandering through the Colón Cemetery one sees the remnants of wealth and power, Cuba’s most historically important figures, and ornately chiseled marble headstones and crypts.
But, surely not everyone was wealthy in Cuba. Where are poor buried, and what happens to those who can’t afford to be laid to rest in Havana’s most historical cemetery?
In the search for Margarita’s ashes, we discovered the truth about the Havana Colón Cemetery and the mystery surrounding the poor who are buried here.
Four years ago, when Margarita passed away, Sandy was unable to attend her first burial. For those who cannot afford a fancy crypt, like Margarita’s family, the poor are buried in quite a different way than the rich.
Margarita’s family purchased a simple pine box and she was buried in an unlined hole with eleven other souls. Sandy described the hole comparing it to bunk beds with three pine coffins stacked on shelves on each side of the square deep hole.
A concrete slab covered the hole, and there the twelve souls rested until their flesh decayed and all that was left were the bones.
Sandy returned three years later to watch them exhume Margarita’s bones. She said the bodies usually stay in the hole for two to three years until they are ready to be removed. When Sandy arrived at the cemetery, she thought that Margarita was the only one buried in the hole and was surprised to see eleven other coffins lining the hole.
In preparation for Margarita’s second burial, her family asked Sandy if she could purchase the small concrete box in which Margarita’s bones would be placed. Sandy described them like concrete blocks with a concrete lid that fit over the top of the box.
Sandy wanted to honor her mother-in-law with more than a concrete box, so she bought a marble box and had her name engraved on the front. Total cost was 12 CUCs.
Margarita’s coffin was gently lifted out of the hole and her coffin was opened in front of the family. They asked Sandy to bring talcum powder and a white pillow case to the second burial. Then, before the bones were arranged in the marble box, Sandy spread the talcum powder on the bottom and placed the white pillow case over the powder.
The grave workers quickly and expertly arranged Margarita’s bones in the box. She described it like the game of Jenga…all the bones had to be perfectly stacked to fit in the box with the skull placed on top and nestled in the center.
Then, Margarita’s marble box was stacked in the mausoleum with hundreds of others, waiting for their assigned resting spots. Sandy tearfully described the boxes to me. She said most families couldn’t afford marble boxes and their names were hastily scribbled on the front with magic markers.
During this trip, Sandy wanted to pay respects to Margarita, so her family gathered at the cemetery to visit her marble box. Every box is recorded as to its specific location in the large mausoleum, but it was difficult to walk through the narrow aisles with boxes stacked and tipping precariously.
Fortunately, Margarita was on the top of the pile, and Ernestico found an old wooden ladder to retrieve Margarita’s ashes. He peeked inside and said her bones were disintegrated and all that was left were ashes. No one else wanted to see her ashes, so he gently placed her back on the top of the pile of concrete boxes.
Sandy forgot to bring a rose, but she paid her loving respects to her mother-in-law. Then, it was time to squeeze out of the mausoleum aisles single file through the tilting and tipping stacks of bones.
I wondered how much it costs to keep the boxes of bones in the mausoleum and what happened to the bones if the families couldn’t afford the yearly upkeep. Sandy said that she sends money yearly for Margarita’s grave. It costs about 30 Cuban pesos a month.
Even though it is a small amount to pay, many families cannot afford 30 pesos a month. What happens to the bones of their loved ones then? Well, they are removed from the cemetery…but that is a story for another day.
Margarita’s ashes are safe for years to come, thanks to Sandy, Ron’s sister.
What unusual burial practices have you seen?