December 06, 2016

Photo Essay: The Cemetery Where Fidel Didn't Want To Be Buried

Our tour guides were taken aback a bit when we told them we wanted to visit a cemetery while we were in Havana.

But it turned out to be not such an unusual request. After all, ours wasn't the only tour bus parked at The Colón Cemetery in Vedado.

It's a stop of historic, cultural, and architectural significance, having been founded in 1876 (though the statues weren't placed atop the Main Gate until 1901).

This necropolis is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón), whose arrival in 1492 marked the beginning of centuries of Spanish rule of the archipelago.

Here, the monuments, statuary, and headstones are elaborately carved...

...most of them whitewashed by the sun.

Some of the mausolea have seen better days, but—despite their dilapidation—they were surrounded by scaffolding during our visit, and they appeared to be active construction sites.

This is where the most prominent people of Cuba have been interred...

...from popular singers and musicians (like Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer of The Buena Vista Social Club)... sugar magnates like Eutimio Falla Bonet, as well as military heroes, baseball stars, and politicians.

Former Cuban President José Miguel Gómez is buried here.

Former Cuban President Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso is surrounded by stained glass here.

So why wouldn't Fidel Castro have wanted to be interred alongside all of these prominent Cuban figures?

Did he not want to spend eternity with the historical statesmen of Cuba, like former President Carlos Manuel De Cespedes Y Quesada?

Did Fidel not appreciate Art Deco?

Did he not revere the firefighters who were betrayed and died in the Great Fire of 1890?

Was he afraid of bats?

Did he not want eternal tears to be shed for him, in the form of a teardrop-shaped chain?

Perhaps he was deterred by the idea of being forever surrounded by all those mass graves...

...or by the million people who've been buried here in total, not all of whom were quite so prominent, relegated to the perimeter of the 150-acre cemetery.

In fact, the cementerio is so crowded, and space is at such a premium, that many of the tombs are reused to bury multiple members of the same family over the years.

Bodies are not embalmed and are buried in, more or less, a pine box. By the time three years have passed, the flesh has rotted away, leaving behind a pile of bones that gets relocated to an ossuary.

They take up far less room than had the body been chemically preserved and stored in an airtight casket.

Some of the tombs have been abandoned, the families of those buried living in exile outside of Cuba.

Some families sell their tombs to other families for the money.

Some of those tombs that are in limbo, so to speak, have been vandalized—their windows broken, with no money to fix them and no current owner to take responsibility for them.

Maybe Fidel was afraid of his gravesite being vandalized.

Maybe he couldn't bear the thought of hearing that infernal knocking at La Milagrosa, the rat-a-tat-tat of thousands of visitors who perform a ritual in hopes of a miracle of fertility.

Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016 and was almost immediately cremated. His ashes made a four-day, 540-mile procession across the island before being permanently interred at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba.

It's less than 60 miles from Fidel's birthplace in Birán, but it's considered "the birthplace of the Cuban revolution."

And so that's why Fidel didn't want to be buried with the other Cuban dignitaries, in a cemetery that's characterized by an establishment that he fought so hard against.

I'm guessing that cemetery tourism will become a lot more popular now in Cuba, now that people can find Fidel in one of them.

Related Posts:
Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fide
Crossing the Border (Cruzando la Frontera)

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