By Frank Simon
HAVANA TIMES — “They wanted to take him out of the box and take out his pacemaker because it could supposedly serve another heart patient,” Alberto Manuel’s statement horrified me and led to a story about the last moments of a Cuban’s life on this earth and precarious or opulent cemeteries, depending on the deceased person’s social standing.
“We don’t even have money for the wreaths given the fact that my father was just a doctor, who earned 500 pesos (20 usd) per month throughout his entire life and only received a slight wage increase right at the end,” Alberto tells me. After months by his sick father’s side, he accompanied him to the last resting place: a mass grave.
Two years later, the dead man was taken out and placed in an ossuary, which costs a “reasonable” 150 Cuban pesos, “but that’s already cheaper, just imagine they don’t even have decent coffins at funeral homes, my father was put in a box that broke into pieces as we lowered it down into the grave.”
The state of Cuban cemeteries discredits the respect these people had, who lived during a social experiment full of unkept promises, many of whom were, workers or professionals who lived poorly under an apocalyptic and crazy government which only asked them to make more sacrifices.
When it comes to cemeteries, the majority are the result of the opulence or poverty of social classes before 1959, who built monuments like the Colon Cemetery in Havana, which could call itself a world heritage site if it weren’t for the constant depredation it is victim to and complaints by those who go there.
Carmen is 72 years old and lost her 99-year-old mother a while ago. When she took her out to put her in the ossuary, her skull and shinbones were missing, “a clear sign that Palo religious followers, who pay gravediggers off for desecrating graves for religious purposes, used mom. It’s a big business, just like selling bronze fittings and statues is.”
I have seen how bodies and bones end up in a confusing pile in ossuaries with my own two eyes, so much so that a relative might be taking flowers to someone they have no relationship to whatsoever; it’s nearly impossible to keep the dead in order and in respectful conditions in the face of religious practitioners’ greed and the disrespect some cemetery employees have.
There’s always the excuse that they have poor wages, that this forces cemetery workers to “look on the side”, but this is macabre to the extreme.
Cemeteries began being built on the outskirts of Cuban towns during the time of Bishop Espada, for public health reasons, because dead people used to end up in church crypts until then, in the best of cases, or in mass graves, for dogs, if you were poor.
The majority of Cuba’s cemeteries still answer to the very order that bishops gave, some of them, like the Tomas Acea cemetery in Cienfuegos, are real gems of Criollismo or Colon’s ecclectic style, with its neo-baroque sculpture and different shaped graves. But, this is all water under the bridge in Communist Cuba, where indifference to people goes beyond the time of death.
“Many people used to be thrown out to sea in empty codfish crates before,” Carmen tells me, a sign that the shadows that follow the dead aren’t today’s, but rather those of a problem that has been unresolved in this country like so many others.
The truth is that Alberto’s father, furthermore, a doctor, had his pacemaker taken out at the funeral home, after the forensic surgeons at the hospital refused to give him a biopsy because “they were very busy”, and that’s because if you aren’t important or you don’t hand over a wad of cash, dead or alive, you exist less and less for Cuba’s public health system, a phenomenon which is becoming the repudiation of one of Socialism’s alleged great achievements.
“Dying in Cuba is expensive and ugly, but it’s always been like that,” Carmen tells me and I remembered that ever since Ancient Egypt, or way before that even, rich people took everything they owned with them, including living slaves, a sign that life after death, for them, was still purchaseable. I also remembered the indulgences of the Middle Ages, that is to say, of plots in Paradise on Earth for those who had enough money to pay for their sins, in cash.
“Working so much in Workers’ Paradise, to end up renting out a space for my deceased father which isn’t at all cheap,” Alberto tells me.
We both ended by asking ourselves who would pay for us so that we didn’t end up in a mass grave, as we haven’t inherited a vault and we don’t have the money to buy a grave plot, a tiny space in the graveyard. Perhaps we’ll end up being those people who got thrown out to sea in empty codfish crates, easy prey for fish and oblivion, in this History which always disregards the poor.