Conversation with a Cuban Undertaker

Irina Pino

Tombs at the Colon Cemetery.
Tombs at the Colon Cemetery.

HAVANA TIMES — It was my dad’s birthday last week and several members of the family headed over to Havana’s Colon Cemetery to pay tribute to him.

We had ordered a tombstone which, despite being very expensive, did not meet the basic artistic requirements. The gravestone also hadn’t been sculpted there. They are made by a guy who lives close to us. They are small and shoddy. The chiseled letters are rather inelegant, and he uses the same style for all tombstones he sells.

I wonder why the cemetery doesn’t have a workshop where one can request this service. Why must one rely on a craftsperson who isn’t a real artist? Like so many others, this question has no answer.

While there, next to the grave where my father’s remains rest, we noticed the deterioration of some tombs. Some have cracked lids, are covered by dry leaves or overgrown with weeds.

We were barely able to have some time to ourselves there. Our silence was interrupted by a stranger. A man who looked over eighty approached us, offering to care for the grave. He had worked at the cemetery for 60 years and his 240-peso pension isn’t enough to live on. Hence, he offers a private service, charging 20 pesos to clean the tomb and its surroundings. He visits the home of the relatives every 3 months to collect payment.

Humberto el sepulturero.

Humberto lives alone and has no children. His best friend has cancer and she is the one who tells him when someone requires his services, for he doesn’t even have a phone. Some months ago, he had a heart attack and she helped him. Now, he has to take care of her, as she is in the terminal phase of her condition.

After hearing this moving story, my niece took out the money and hired him immediately. He continued to talk and told us that, if we wanted to repair the tomb, he knew a reliable person who could do it, and he went on and on, adding one service after the other (like the placing of a specific type of plant in the jars), talking about how little the tombstones last, how bad the glue they use is.

We were barely able to concentrate or think about my father. He also gave us advice and suggested we went to the cemetery office to put everything in order. One could tell he knew his job well. He also told us the exact address of our father’s tomb.

Will this man be around long enough to look after so many tombs? Nobody knows. What’s certain is that he’s struggling in his last years of life.

12 thoughts on “Conversation with a Cuban Undertaker

  • “All trade embargoes between the rest of the free world and Cuba should be lifted immediately…..”:

    And just how would that help keep the graves swept, or provide a better quality gravestone?

    This endless blather about the bloody embargo means didley-squat, unless you expect Irina to order a gravestone from “New-Yawk”. Yeah, and maybe somebody from Los Angeles can drop by once a week to trim the weeds.


  • All Cuban government embargoes on the individual freedoms of the Cuban citizens, to express and disseminate their opinions, and to work and trade independently should be immediately lifted. Only in this way can Cuba and it’s people prosper. We all have to move on and live in the present and plan for the future, we must stop living in the past and build a brighter future for our children and grandchildren!

  • Everytime you mention the US embargo, I will ask you about the Cuban government blockade on their own citizens. The PCC can do little about the US embargo but they could lift the internal blockade on their people today if they just wanted. Why don’t they do it?

  • She was there during the first years, when most people supported the revolution and expected the democracy process broken by Batista will be restored as Fidel had promised. It never happened.

    We Cubans have a joke: We only have three problems the Government have not been able to solve: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

  • And some have spent a longer time in Cuba. Here’s what Shirley Langer has to say about her book Anita’s Revolution.

    I lived and worked in Cuba almost five years during the mid-sixties, a few years after Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign had accomplished its initial goal of basic literacy. Everywhere I went, I saw classes taking place?in the lobbies of hotels, in workplace cafeterias, in apartment building vestibules–even in the open air of parks. Adults who had achieved basic literacy in 1961 were studying throughout the years I was there to achieve elementary and secondary school levels.

    Today, Cuba struggles with many problems, but illiteracy is not one of them.

  • All trade embargoes between the rest of the free world and Cuba should be lifted immediately and Cuba should be allowed to trade with whoever is prepared to do business between their countries, only in this way will Cuba and it’s people prosper. We all have to move on and live in the present and plan for the future, we must stop living in the past and build a brighter future for our children and grandchildren!

  • Yes, unfortunately there will always be apologists for the regime and for communism. Almost invariably they have either never been to Cuba, or only to tourist resorts. Such people have no experience of the reality of life for Cubans and few if any of them actually care. To them the discussions are academic.

  • My first sentence should begin, “I can promise you that each time you refer to the difficult conditions…”

  • I can promise you that each time to refer to the difficult conditions of the Cuban people I, or someone else, will ask you if you think the embargo is in any way responsible for the hardships of the Cuban people. So it would save time if, before you are asked, you acknowledge the existence of the embargo and express your opinion on whether or not it has any economic impact on Cuba.

  • Just how much longer must the Cuban people be treated so unjustly by their government?

  • Very true. Many “cafe con leche” leftist will retort that there are people living in worse conditions in Bangladesh or any other place. I do not understand that defeatist way to approach life. Besides, Cuba was never anything like Bangladesh or many other Third World countries.

  • Most Cubans struggle throughout their retirement lives. A pathetic pension of $8 per month making them dependent upon ‘la familia’. Such conditions have taken fifty seven years of socialismo to achieve. Imagine having to contemplate continuation of such a system.

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