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Even the flowers are different at Cuban funerals. Forget bouquets and baskets. Here, wreaths rule. Just as every funeral home has a cafeteria, each also has a wreath workshop close by. Cuban funeral wreaths are made of wadded up, tightly twisted raffia studded with flowers. Also stabbed into the tire-sized wreath are sprightly green foliage and a billowing ribbon stamped: ‘Our condolences, The Perez Family’ or ‘Always in my memory, Your Loving Brother.’ These are the same wreaths laid at memorials for national heroes – Martí, Maceo, Mella – seen around town once in a while. The most creative use of funeral wreaths are by baseball and basketball fans who hold them aloft, the ribbon reading ‘RIP Industriales’ or ‘Sorry for your loss Santa Clara.’1
Which reminds me of the time I was in Baracoa…
I was updating a guidebook. You know the one that takes people into every nook and cranny of the world making the company’s name an oxymoron? That guidebook. Anyway, on the day in question, I was in Baracoa, a charming seaside town that had no road connecting it to the rest of Cuba until the 1960s. As you may imagine, it retains a down home, small town feel.
So there I am, walking Baracoa’s clean-swept streets ostensibly collecting detail after niggling detail for my legion of readers, but what I’m really after are cigars. I have a two-cheroot-a-day habit and watch out when I run out! Poking around for my fix, I spy a hand painted sign above a typically quaint wooden doorway: We Sell Coronas.
Coronas! Just what I’m looking for. I quicken my step and knock on the door. A well-kept ‘tween boy opens it a crack.
“Good afternoon?” he greets me politely but with that screwed up look that says ‘what the hell is this gringa doing on our doorstep?!’
“You sell Coronas?” I ask, pointing up at the sign.
“Yes?” he answers with that same queer look.
“Can I buy some?”
“Um, let me get my mom,” he responds with knitted brow, shutting the door gently.
His mom comes to the door and we go through the same Q&A – her look as skeptical as her son’s. Friendly, but bewildered. Finally she offers to show me their wares; I can almost taste the tobacco at this point. As I’m led through their spotless living room to the back where they keep the goods, it’s marigolds and daisies I smell, not tobacco. We emerge in their workshop stacked high and deep with the funeral wreaths I would come to know well. What I didn’t know then is that they’re called coronas.
I’m quite sure the story of the Corona-hunting gringa is still making the rounds up there in Baracoa.
Back at the funeral home, each family has a designated room where their loved one is laid out. The coronas are hung from hooks latched onto molding about five feet off the floor. The room is lined with my favorite kind of rocking chairs – the ones with metal frames and plastic blue or red lanyards that are so popular in the tropics. While morgue to grave is fairly speedy in Cuba, the actual wake can be an 8-hour marathon and these chairs cradle you like a baby, rocking you to sleep.
Family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers pass the time rocking and chatting quietly. There’s a lot of hugging and handholding and kisses on the cheek – at wakes, the archetypical Cuban trait of human warmth and contact takes over. Someone will likely set up a small table in the corner with plastic cups and a couple of Thermoses. One has the sweet, black coffee we’re all addicted to, the other has ‘té de tilo.’2
Hours go by drinking tilo, rocking, crying, and napping. Stepping out once in a while to smoke fragrant, filter-less Cuban cigarettes, we receive fresh mourners at the funeral home door. No one wears black.
All coffins in Cuba are wooden carbon copies, covered in black cloth (white for kids) that’s pinned down tight with decorative rivets. There’s always a window for viewing the dead’s head. They probably have windowless models for violent accident victims, but I’m not familiar with the ‘closed Cuban casket.’ They do an admirable job with the makeup, considering.
At the appointed time, the coffin is again transferred to a dolly and wheeled away. People who hadn’t the strength to move close during the official viewing are sometimes taken unawares, catching a glimpse through the coffin window of their beloved’s head as they roll by. There may be wailing then and turning towards walls for support or to pound a futile fist.
After the coffin is wheeled out, the coronas are unhooked and taken to the hearse. As soon as they’re piled on the roof and the back door is closed, the procession begins to make its way through the city streets to Cementerio Colón. The state provides a couple of black and yellow antiquated Russian taxis to transport the family. Everyone else is on their own.
A shadowy silence descends on the usually effervescent streets with the procession’s passage and bystanders play a traditional game of tag to ward off a similar fate. At a bus stop, a woman touches her husband’s arm. ‘Pasa el muerto‘ she says. ‘Pasa el muerto’ he says, passing it to his son with a pat on the back. ‘Pasa el muerto’ he says to someone, anyone, touching their shoulder – he knows if he’s stuck with the ‘pasa el muerto,’ he’ll be next.
The caravan’s arrival at the cemetery has to be timed precisely since each burial is tightly scheduled (I imagine the whole thing is a nightmare to coordinate). The hearse inches its way under a blistering sun through the cemetery’s narrow streets, with the bereaved walking behind it. Parents, children, and other close family and friends often plant a palm on the car as if to guide it. Hand on hearse, you can see their need for contact this one last time.
When the deceased is someone particularly loved and esteemed, the procession is large and slow, taking its time to reach the tomb. Typically, the no-digging grave diggers are waiting when it rolls up. Pall bearers extract the coffin and carry it the short distance from hearse to crypt. Mourners rest against strangers’ graves as they wait for the cemetery workers to slip the lid off the tomb and ease the coffin down and in. Once it’s settled, the lid is replaced, and they stack the wreaths on top of the tomb. For the religious, a few words will be pronounced by a pastor. For the poets, a few lines of verse read.
It’s all over quickly. The grave diggers are tipped without delay and mourners drift away to drink more tilo and cry themselves to sleep.
1. The Industriales (aka Los Leones, Los Azules) are Havana’s baseball team and are often likened to the New York Yankees for their popularity and historically winning record (though they seem to have gone soft of late). Santa Clara is to the Industriales what the Red Sox are to the Yankees.
2. After a lengthy investigation, I’ve discovered that tilo is linden in English. I’d never heard of tilo (or linden) before all this grief, but my friend’s comparison to ‘mellow valerian root’ is right on the mark.
– For Lily and Carmita.