When I saw our itinerary for our “people-to-people” cultural tour of Cuba (one of the only legal ways to visit Cuba as an American), the one event out of all that I was the least excited about was the visit to a cemetery. To me, visiting cemeteries are rather morbid and oftentimes depressing. Unless of course you are at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, who wants to see a bunch of grave stones while you are happily enjoying a vacation?
Our morning visit to the famous Colon Cemetery or Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón as it is called in Spanish, proved that not only was I completely wrong but that cemeteries can be actually quite a beautiful place loaded with gorgeous architecture, flowers, history and art. If you have to be buried, then there isn’t a more beautiful place than the Colon Cemetery in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
Founded in 1871 as the prosperous Spanish colony began expanding its architectural works into new posh neighborhoods and theaters, train stations, markets, hotels and parks, the Colon Cemetery was built on top of the existing Espada Cemetery and named after Christopher Columbus, the Spaniard who “discovered” Cuba. The Colon Cemetery was based on a project designed by Calixto Aureliano de Loire y Cardoso, a Spanish architect who lived in Cuba. Sadly, he died only two years after starting the project and was one of the first people buried in the cemetery.
The Colon Cemetery is known as the third most important cemeteries in the world based on its glorious architecture and history. In Latin America, it is the second most important cemetery after La Recoleta in Buenos Aires that I have also seen. Both are equally beautiful yet in drastically different ways.
Catholicism came to Cuba with its Spanish conquerors who imposed their religion on the natives and ruled Cuba for over 400 years. In 1959, on the eve of the revolution over 80 percent of the island was Roman Catholic but very few attended church. Once Castro took over and Communism became the way of the land, religion became incompatible with Communism and Cuba was declared an atheist nation. It wasn’t until the Special Period of the 1990s that Castro reluctantly allowed a softening on religion. Christmas festivities which had been banned since 1969 finally were allowed to resume at the end of the 90s. Today, the church is the one place that has freedom of expression in Cuba thus religious monuments, ceremonies, churches and cemeteries are once again important in Cuban life.
The Colon Cemetery is enormous. Overall, its grounds cover 140 acres and there are over 2.5 million burials here and the cemetery is still in use today. The cemetery is known for its elaborately sculpted memorials, each one a beautiful work of art. There is estimated to be over 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults within the cemetery.
Restoration is extremely important given Cuba’s hot and humid climate and the age of some of the tombs. Amazingly enough we could see lots of restoration work occurring as we toured the cemetery similar to the restoration work being done in Old Havana.
Some of the monuments and sculptures on the tombs were rather impressive. I can only imagine how much time it must have taken to do all this intricate work.
We also came upon a few memorials for the famous Cubans like the burial site of Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, one of the most famous Cuban musicians from the original Buena Vista Social Club.
And we admired the gorgeous 75 foot monument constructed for the “bomberos” or firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890.
We also witnessed several Cubans coming to the sacred memorial for “Amelia and her baby”. Amelia died in 1901 of preclampsia and she was buried together with her baby. Local Cubans now come and offer their prayers for safe pregnancies and return with flowers and prayers to thank her for a safe birth. Donations are also made to the saint and when a donation is given, you ring the bell.
As we were ending our tour of the cemetery, in rolled a car loaded with flowers on top. It was a funeral.
I took these last few pictures before we left our quirky albeit hilarious Cuban tour guide. I realized that I should have taken a photo of him because he was about as remarkable as the cemetery itself!
We left the cemetery hot and tired. The heat was creeping up and it was only ten o’clock. We had yet another full day ahead of us meeting with the people of Cuba. At least from now on it would be with the living people.