Between Pain & Shame: A Dignified Death

Maria Matienzo Puerto

Havana's Colon Cemetery.  Photo:
Havana's Colon Cemetery. Photo:

The celebration of death is a form of debasement in any other country, in Mexico or wherever in the world.  Nonetheless, in Cuba we see announcements on TV like “The 50th anniversary of the death of (whoever) is being celebrated,” though any contact with death is painful in Cuba. Recently I had that misfortune, which sent shivers down my back.

My grandmother’s illness took the whole family by surprise.  After we got the news, it was only a question of days.  Her cancer had already spread far along, so much so that it was impossible to eliminate it.

Each one of us did what we could and what was required.  My uncle sold his cell phone to cover the expenses, my mom stayed over at her mother’s house, and the rest of us did what we could to accommodate our grandmother’s needs.

We were given only fifteen days to say goodbye, but those fifteen days were enough to find out how things work in terms of other people’s and one’s own misfortune; each one of my grandmother’s needs had to be provided for through friends and people with influence.

Some of the less important hardships were the lack of sterilized materials and the incompetence of some of the nurses at the hospital; or that due to the shortage of ambulances, we had to push her home in a wheelchair; or that we were able to get her an oxygen tank thanks only to a friend.  I believe all of that was overshadowed, though, by the expertise of the doctor who attended her.

The worse came later

At the funeral home, the schedule was fuller than what was established.  The burial ceremony would have to take place before eleven in the morning if we wanted to bury her the same day. This was because the drivers of the taxis that the institution put to our disposal (which weren’t free) had to be informed.

That’s to say, the pain didn’t matter, and that even with death in Cuba there’s also a certain amount of wheeling and dealing.  What really happened was that the taxi drivers needed to leave early in order to make a little extra money charging fares in the streets of the city.

Another situation occurred with the flowers, which despite our efforts never appeared because florist shops aren’t open on Mondays.  This, however, was not a detail that bothered us much since my grandmother never liked flowers.

In the end, with a call to the Provincial Communist Party office from the voice of someone with a certain amount of influence, we solved some of particulars: there was plenty of transportation and attention.

I had thought the worst would be that the hearse driver is the same person who takes care of preparing the deceased.  That was my thinking, at least until the time of the funeral came and it was necessary to lift the coffin to carry it first into the church and later to the grave site.

I feel embarrassed saying this, but we were afraid that the bottom of the coffin was going to give out.  I’ve heard stories of this happening, but I always thought they were made up by those telling the stories.  Pain was replaced by shame.  Though death is never dignified, we knew my grandmother didn’t deserve such a spectacle.  Fortunately this didn’t happen.

In any case, misfortune always makes us compare.  When noticing the burial of the person in the plot beside my grandmother, I saw that it was full of flowers and surrounded by military officers.

2 thoughts on “Between Pain & Shame: A Dignified Death

  • Maria, i have decided to return to Cuba and live here now..(for awhile) i have a law degree,and a doctorate as well as an undergrad RN BSN and MPH so medicine was my field long before i was convinced that Law was also my niche. To this end i can relate to poor medical services, and people who due to circumstances lack the willingness or skills to perform basic hygeine functions. However, be assured that YOU were the equalizer as it related to the care of your mother..You bore the weight and burden of assuring that all things were accomplished as you and the fam delivered your blessed mother to her rightful last place on earth.
    I urge you to step back and rethink the good times when MOM had sassiness and sway, dance moves that shocked the others and cooking skills that would make my own mothers questionable…When she made sure that no matter the struggle that your family had the best she could acquire..To this end my sister, there is no shame..God has MOM in his care now..Good job

  • I’m glad your worse fears were not realized, Maria. Her funeral could have turned out like the one in the 1960’s film “Death of a Bureaucrat,” the 1990’s film, “Guantanamera,” or Bunuel’s 1920’s film, “Age of Gold!”

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