The Importance of the Dead

Erasmo Calzadilla

Havana's Colon Cemetery. Photo:

Over the past few days I’ve had a bad cold that’s given me a dry cough and made me short of breath.  Because of it, a few nights ago things turned ugly for me: I couldn’t breathe and I believed I was approaching my final hour.  In the silence, I imagined the air sacs in my lungs succumbing to infection one by one since each gasp was more difficult than the previous one.

At that moment the H1N1 virus came to my mind, and I regretted not having taken the homeopathic mouth drops that a revolutionary campaign was distributing among the people.  But it was by then too late for regrets.  I continued gasping and panting —full of fear— until…I fell asleep.

The following day the lung infection proved to be no more than a stupid cold and the fright went away, but it was the image of death that remained there keeping me company.

I’m by no means an expert in death, but with half a lifetime covered, I’ve now accumulated some experience.  Heading for abyss, I’ve seen the loss of one grandfather, four close friends (three by suicide and one from an accident), several dogs and cats (who were also good friends), distant relatives and many others.  The conclusion I’ve drawn from all this: if death is ugly, the wake and the funeral are uglier.

While trying to bear the pain of the loss, the worst part of a wake is when people come there with their ingrained values: men and women who feel it’s their duty to be there but couldn’t care less about the deceased themself.

Often the institution for which the deceased worked will provide transportation and send a group of workers, who in this way complete their work day.  There are also those with ulterior motives’ they only come so that on another occasion we won’t miss the wake of their family members.  All those types —the distracted and the lazy, as they almost always are— only upset those who are aching and wish to share their pain and the last moment with their beloved alone.

Then comes the funeral, in a collective vault full of cockroaches, in a starkly plain cemetery, and with several gravediggers whose lack of manners doesn’t fit the solemnity of the moment.  It seems more like we’re throwing garbage in a hole than saying goodbye to a person who has been important in our lives.

That’s not even talking about the day of the exhumation of the remains, two years later.  By that date the fiber-board boxes have already rotted and the skeletal remains are usually confused with others.

When I went to transfer my grandfather, a dirty gravedigger collected grandpa’s bones with his bare hands from among the rotten clothing, and deposited them in an ugly cement ossuary. However, I saw that other people paid (under the table, of course) for the skull of their dead to be taken home.

The deceased’s name is then scribbled on the ossuary and crowded on an even uglier shelf along with many others.

These must be the reasons I’ve been trying to put the dead out of my mind.  This bureaucratic treatment transforms them into abstract residue, in this way breaking our connection with the deceased.

It also destroys a cultural tradition that transmits identity and family roots from generation to generation.  These are of the things socialism kills and make one wonder if it’s worth the trouble in the end, because to erase the traditions that a people have accumulated over centuries is something very serious for the community itself, and probably irreversible.

One thought on “The Importance of the Dead

  • Hola Erasmo,
    espero que estés bien otra vez y que la gripe esa no te haya atormentada más. Para completar el espectro de procedimientos horribles que – me parece – se practican en sociedades que mantienen rasgos de primitividad que ni el desarrollo técnologico ni de los conocimentos en general han podido eliminar te voy a contar lo que se organiza aquí el día de un funeral: después del entierro se hace una comida llamada “Leichenschmaus” (die Leiche es el cadáver y el verbo “schmausen” significa algo como banquetear, entocnes el banquete del cadáver) donde de golpe todo dolor y solemndidad parecen haber desaparecido para hablar de nuevo de las banalidades de la vida (impuestos, trabajo, compra de casas y deudas – para nombrar algunos temas preferidos de aquí). Así es como experimenté varios entierros y entiendo si prefieres no pensar en la muerte.

    Un abrazo fuerte: Martina

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