HAVANA TIMES — Three months ago, at the funeral parlor in La Lisa, Havana, Luis showed me why he is renowned for never missing a wake.
He was among the first to arrive. “This is one of the ugliest, lesser known funeral parlors in Havana,” he said when he saw me. “The ones in Vedado are the best, especially the one at the intersection of Calzada and K. It’s no accident the “bigwigs” and important people end up there. I haven’t seen the floral wreaths they use there anywhere else, and the flowers look imported from Holland. Isn’t Holland the flower country? Well, wherever they’re from, they don’t like anything like the bits of paper tied up with wire they used for your aunt and the old lady next to her. Yes, it seems we don’t even have enough flowers in Cuba,” he said, speaking so close to me, I could feel his breath on my face.
“Another excellent funeral home is the one on Infanta Street. It’s got three floors, but now, they’ve gotten into the habit of shutting the windows. I went there recently. It was very hot inside and I didn’t even have coffee. To think that, 25 years ago, they sold the best coffee down there. Inside, it looks like the one in Guanabacoa. I was also there a few months ago, with Pancho. That wake was packed.”
“I left feeling sure that half the people there didn’t even know one another. There were so many people I couldn’t even get to see the deceased. I don’t get this business of going to a wake and not seeing the dead person. You won’t get a chance to see them again and, if you don’t know them, that will be the last opportunity you have, even though they all look alike.”
I again felt his breath on my face. “Sometimes, they’re not entirely dead. I haven’t seen those, but that happened to Roberto Faz. You know the story? When they took him out, after two years (to hold another wake), the man was lying face down and the walls of the coffin were scratched. Did they do an autopsy on your aunt?” he asked.
People continued to arrive at the funeral home. “The one in Guanabo is the smallest in Havana,” he said, as though he had just seen me. “It resembles the one in Alamar, which is only one story high and has four chapels. It’s well ventilated, clean and one of the most efficient out there. Despite all that, I don’t like it. It fills up with people too quickly. There aren’t enough chairs and you have to sit outside, on the curb. Can you imagine sitting on the sidewalk the entire night?”
“My favorites are the ones on Zanja. They’re right next to each other, as you know. And those are real wakes. Better than the ones in Lechuga, my home town. On Zanja, people cry and scream even if they don’t know the deceased.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t have your aunt’s wake at Zanja, it’s so close to your house. They sell all kinds of things this time of day. Across the street, they sell fried rice and wieners for 15 pesos. It smells so good it could make your aunt come back to life. And they have coffee. When they told me the wake was at La Lisa, I thought twice about coming.”
He stopped talking for a long while. Suddenly, he said to me: “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. The saddest wake I’ve been to, the only one no one cried at, was the one held for Mario, the sailor. I didn’t feel like that at the time, but with time I did. There was no one there and we stayed for only three hours on instructions from the Party, which didn’t even let us lay flowers on his coffin. Can you believe it?”
“Well, I’m off,” he said, squeezing my hand. “I don’t like burials.” It was 7:30 in the morning. My aunt’s burial was scheduled for 9.