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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