Dying in Cuba – Part 1

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Dear readers: As the title of this entry suggests, today’s offering is a an account of death, Cuban-style. Not everyone’s cup of tea, admittedly. If you’re feeling down or blue, my advice is click through.

In Cuba, that most particular of places, I’ve been thrust into the most universal depths.

Children here for instance, are buried in white coffins. I shouldn’t know this. Some information is best reserved for those who can handle it. My question is: if the woman whose husband dies is a widow and the child whose parents die is an orphan, what do you call the mother whose child dies? Besides heartbroken?

But here, survivors don’t only bury, they unbury as well.

In Havana, you have to disinter your loved one from their tomb in cemetery Colón after a certain number of years. The city’s main cemetery, Colón is a massive metropolis laid out in a sprawling grid, but despite its vastness, it can’t keep up with so many generations of dead. By digging up their dearly departed and depositing them in a mausoleum, families make room for the next in line.

Uncommonly dark is the day when the funeral you’re attending coincides with multiple disinterments, like happened to me recently…

Walking to the grave site, we had to pick our way among disintegrated coffins spilling dead flowers like stuffing from a busted chair. The exhumed detritus littered the tree-lined road where cemetery workers in coveralls rested on a shady tomb. Sidestepping a moldy bouquet and the ghosts of other people’s grief, I vowed – once again – not to go underground in a box: disinterment day at Cementerio Colón makes one hell of a convincing argument for cremation.

Hodgkin’s, heart failure, an accident, or AIDS – whatever the cause, once death descends, Cubans act fast. From autopsy to crypt might take only 8 hours. No deep freeze storage or sit downs with morticians for los Cubanos. Until last night, I thought this was a cultural question, a simple desire to mourn quickly and move on to the real pain and loss. But last night, when Cuban television started showing Six Feet Under reruns, I realized fast funerals are practical: have you seen what tropical heat does to a corpse? And if butter and toilet paper can go missing in Havana, what of wound putty and cadaver makeup?

The funeral home and all that goes with it – embalming, coffin, mortician, hearse, and yes, cadaver makeup – is paid for by the state. Which is what they mean by cradle to grave. Only the flowers and tips for the tomb guys are the family’s responsibility.

The tomb guys can’t be called grave diggers since they don’t actually dig anything. Instead, using wooden poles as levers, they jimmy the lid off the tomb, guide the coffin down into the vault with canvas straps, and slide the lid back into place. Even when the concrete slab slips making mourners gasp, these manual laborers carry themselves with a quiet dignity. Once the lid is secured and people begin drifting away, a wad of pesos are pressed into the sweaty, callused palms of these men. I wonder if they get tipped to unbury too?

Where you lived is where you’re mourned: each neighborhood has its funeral home, where there may be several wakes going at once. Havana’s funeral homes are 24-hours and more in-your-face than what I’m used to. At some, the hearse rolls right up to the front door from the morgue. With mourners milling about, the coffin is lowered onto a dolly and wheeled into the embalming room; this part is concealed, thankfully, though sometimes by a simple scrim.

Each funeral home is a bit different, but every one has a desolate cafeteria where workers bearing sympathetic smiles sell coffee and cigars to the bereaved. I don’t know how they withstand all the sorrow. Especially on white coffin days. If you come to Cuba looking for heroes, head to the nearest funeral home cafeteria.

To be continued….</e


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

18 responses to “Dying in Cuba – Part 1

  1. El Niño Atómico

    You seem to grasp the process pretty well, yet mentioned “embalming” twice. If any embalming was done, there would not be any need for the hurry. Besides, it would slow down the body’s decomposition and it would not have decomposed the end of the two years (that’s how long they take before exhuming).

    At least the bones in Havana are placed in a building in the rear of the cemetery. I have seen photos of a cemetery in Oriente where the bones are placed in a wooden cabinet right on top of the tomb, some open for the world to see.

    • Hola Nino – thanks for the insight. As I understand it the remains in public tombs are exhumed after two years, private tombs get a longer stay. My direct experiencce is more with the mourning and burying part. but in my family, and others I know, the “unburying” part is very traumatic – like living the death all over again – and many people put it off as long as possible.

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  4. David

    Please conatct me at XXX@.com I am an American funeral director and would like to talk with a Cuban funeral worker. Thanks

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  9. Shazzer

    Conner, Did you ever read Carlo’s Eires ‘Waiting for Snow in Havana’? Confessions of a Cuban Boy’ It is one of the books that have turned me on even more. What a place, kudos for you girl!

  10. I did some mission work in cuba, nice place friendly people. could use some building maintenance.

    • Hola. Yes, building maintenance is one of the most pressing infrastructure problems. According to some estimates, some 300 buildings collapse in Havana annually and there is a shortage of 600,000 living units across the island. It’s a complex, ongoing problem compounded by the weather (very hard to maintain buildings with such sea exposure AND in hurricane alley), and economic woes – including the US blockade of the island.

      The good news is, the Brazilian Home Depot is apparently going to start doing business here! Which is great for us, plus a financial/trade flipping of the bird to the north (ie you won’t sell bldg supplies to us? Well, Brazil will).

      • Doug Zaruba

        Heard your interview on NPR! Wonderful! Cuba Libros Rocks!
        I have been living in Panama for many years and met with a Cuban government minister shortly after Obama was elected. We discussed the embargo and Guantanamo, and his response to ending the embargo surprised me. He stated that Cuba was NOT WILLING to immediately end the embargo, but had requested time to adjust to the reality of millions of American tourists and businesses descending on Cuba with loads of American dollars! He was afraid that it would end the communist economy! Since then, I have seen that Cuba has been liberalizing life on the island, and you can bet your last American dollar that Home Depot and a lot of other companies would LOVE to sell to a country that is virtually a vacuum waiting for American goods.

        What is your take on this?

      • Hola. Thanks for weighing in. First, for all the dissenters out there: isn’t it refreshing to hear a govt minister talking straight? Second, the PRI interview Doug refers to is here: http://www.theworld.org/2013/08/english-bookstore-cuba/

        Now, for what it’s worth, I think what this official probably meant (and this is all 2nd hand conjecture mind you) is that even if the US suddenly lifts the embargo (unlikely), that does not mean that Cuba will just open the doors automatically to US companies. This makes sense: after so much torment by the US, is Cuba likely to just reward that torment with its plum economic market (ie vaccum for American goods)? I don’t think so.

        People often ask me about what will happen when US lifts the embargo, assuming Cuba will just roll out the red carpet. I think there has been too much damage done in the past 50 years for that to happen, the Cubans are too smart and cautious, and besides Chinese, Brazilian, and other countries are already occupying key economic sectors here so it may be moot.

        Why major US companies are not bringing their power to bear on the embargo policy is puzzling to me. They could cash in quick if a new market 90 miles away were to become available. Some politicians have been realizing what a boon the (virtual) virgin market in Cuba would be to their local economies – the Gulf States for instance, with their ports and shipping industry – but Im more convinced than ever that US analysis vis-à-vis Cuba is myopic and unsophisticated.
        My dos kilos (for what they’re worth).

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  12. John Corbett

    Thank you Connor for another interesting instalment on Cuban life . I enjoy you’re writing and humorous descriptions of how people adapt to adversity going about their daily lives . We can learn so much from the Cuban experience . As for my two cents regarding the new U.S. relationship , myopic and unsophisticated says it all .

    Cheers , and good luck for the future

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