This travel article by Joerg Schurig for Monsters and Critics offeres us an amusing glimpse at cemetery visiting in Cuba.
‘A good idea about getting to know a city,’ the taxi driver says when told the destination, the Necropolis Cristobal Colon. ‘A cemetery can tell a lot about people.’
The cemetery in Havana is named after Christopher Columbus, the 15th-century navigator who discovered the New World, and who is buried in the Spanish city Seville. In the Cuban capital, his name is immortalized by many sites, including one of the largest cemeteries in all of Latin America, in the Vedado district.
Necropolis Cristobal Colon was established in 1871, and today, covering 56 hectares, looks like a city in white. Marble is the predominant stone, and in the glaring sun the cemetery is virtually blinding. More than two million people are said to be buried here – about the same size as Havana’s current population.
On a recent morning, things were very busy in the cemetery. Not all burials are a mass event, and sometimes, a coffin will be lowered into the ground with nary a person there to witness it. But on this day, a crowd of around a hundred mourners is out, in a demonstration of how well African rites can mix with Catholic tradition.
After the mass in the central chapel, the crowd proceeds to the grave site, to the beat of drums. Even the coffin on this occasion serves as a percussion instrument. There seems to be no rush as the procession heads towards the final resting spot. Men chant verses in tribute to the deceased and the rest of the mourners sing the refrain.
After the necropolis was declared a national monument in 1987, more and more tourists have come to see it. ‘We have more than 160,000 foreign visitors every year,’ a woman at the entrance says. A small fee is charged to them. Tours are offered in French, English and Russian.
Many tourists however prefer to explore the cemetery on their own, and a pamphlet helps them to locate the graves of celebrities. For example, the musicians Ruben Gonzales and Ibrahim Ferrer, made internationally famous by the film Buena Vista Social Club, are buried here, as is the poet Alejo Carpentier.
The grave of chess world champion Jose Raul Capablanca is decorated by a large female statue, while the cemetery is also home to the graves of revolutionaries, colonial masters, generals, and of course, common Cubans.
With a tone of pride in their voice, cemetery personnel relate the cemetery’s dimensions, saying for example that the ‘road network’ alone is 24 kilometres. The cemetery is also said to have 35,000 square metres of green space, though one must search closely for anything green among the mass of white grave markers.
Things were greatly different at the time of its establishment. Spanish architect Calixto de Loira y Cardoso conceived the design along the basic outline of an ancient Roman army encampment and so accordingly planned the dimensions to be generous.
Photographs dating back to the 1920s show large expanses of green, only dotted here and there by individual grave sites. Today, the graves are jammed closely together, and in places you have to twist and turn your way between the gravestones.
European traces are also to be found in the necropolis, including German war dead. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, a sea battle took place off the coast of Havana, with a number of sailors being killed. Germans living in Cuba at the time had a memorial gravestone placed in the cemetery.
In other places, Egyptian culture was an inspiration to the architects, who built a number of mausoleums in the form of a pyramid.
Many graves have a monumental appearance, hinting at the importance of the deceased- at least for the survivors. In any event, every period left its mark on the cemetery’s architectural styles – be it neo-Gothic, neo-Baroque, Art Deco, or eclectic.
One grave has cult status and is always decorated. It contains the mortal remains of a miracle figure named Milagrosa. According to the story, Amelia Goyri died during a stillbirth in 1901. The dead baby was laid at the foot of its mother. The widower, Jose Vicente Adot, is said to have visited the grave every day, whereby he never turned his back on it.
Years later, when the grave was opened, the two corpses were said to have been totally preserved – and in addition, the child was now lying in the arms of its mother.
Such miracle stories are often heard at the Necropolis Colon, and today, Milagrosa is revered as the patron saint of pregnant women. And to this day, visitors circling around her grave never turn their backs on it. And one hears, over and over, visitors reverently saying ‘Muchas gracias, Milagrosa.’
For more fantastic photos of the cemetery follow this link to JB Moment in Time Photography in Flickr.