The first stop the next morning is the cemetery where we meet the aforementioned guide. A school teacher, presumably she now does guided tours to earn more money. The cemetery land was donated by Tomas Acea, after the original one (Cemetaria de la Reina) was inundated with water: they now have to bury people in the walls of that one. The new one was started on more democratic principles; a place where both rich and poor could be buried in the same place. Acea donated the land for a garden cemetery, fronted by an entrance to match the Parthenon. Of course the rich have large tombs with the obligatory angel or Jesus guarding marble plinths; the poor have collective memorials. Each profession collected funds to create a communal tomb, we pass the graves of the electricians, doctors and gastronomic workers. Each of these has smaller name plates on top.
The burial process is interesting: everyone has the desire to be close to the sky and God so body is buried above ground in re-usable tombs . After two years, the cemetery workers disinter the bodies, to check if they are fully decomposed. If not, they seal them up and wait another year. If the body is fully disintegrated they exhume the bones, and the family of the deceased come to clean them, performing a ritual significant to the life of the loved one. If a musician, they will play music; a teacher will have readings from her favourite book, a drinker will have a rum ceremony. Sometimes a widow will be joined by his mistress(es), and it will be only then when the wife realises her husband’s infidelity. Yes the women may fight, but in the end they all honour him together. Pshaw. The bones are then collected and placed in a box, which is then buried somewhere else on the grounds.
The coffins are not the plush resting places we are used to paying a fortune for our mouldering remains. They are simple wooden boxes, lined with plain cloth, serving purely to hold the remains till nature has taken her course. We pass a tomb in the process of construction, missing its lid – a simple square box, with a couple of rectangular in-built shelves where the coffins will lie.
In this cemetery there are also monuments to the ill-fated revolutionaries of 1957, and in particular, the ones not well known. Many of the founders of the Cuban movement are overshadowed by Fidel and Che.
The cemetery park itself is a listed national site in Cuba – everywhere else land is at too much of a premium, and the tombs are squished up against each other.
We don’t visit the other ceremony, enough death – let’s live a little.