Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón: Visiting the Dead in Havana, Cuba

Cuba is a country full of contradictions – that’s half the charm of the place – so perhaps it should be no surprise to find that, in Havana at least, the dead often seem to live better than the living.

The ‘Necrópolis Colón’ was named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, to the Spanish) and its lavish design, its monuments of white marble and gold, display a kind of opulence that most contemporary Cubans can only dream of. It is very much a relic of a former age, a time when Cuba operated as a lucrative outpost at the heart of Spain’s Caribbean empire – and yet today it survives perfectly preserved, a microscopic anachronism at the heart of the Cuban socialist republic.

In fact, the Colón Necropolis exists as perhaps the purest living tribute to Cuba’s former prosperity. While the colonial architecture that defines the island’s urban centres has had time to crumble and fade – pillared, Beaux-Arts facades gradually losing their lustre and falling at the feet of the new wave of concrete towers erected by the communists – the cemetery has endured.

Though not strictly a religious people (communism will tend to have that effect), the Cubans are typically quite superstitious. An abandoned house here might get stripped of building materials in a matter of days; but a cemetery, on the other hand, is protected. Respected. Though for the locals, this historical site must seem almost to taunt with its memories of a brighter, richer yesteryear, it nevertheless remains a much-loved – and wonderfully preserved – symbol of the city of Havana.

It was hot the day I went to visit the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. Every day in Cuba is hot, but this one felt worse than most; and, in a lapse of judgement that I’d later come to regret, when I set out towards the cemetery – located southwest of the Vedado district, not far from Plaza de la Revolución – I did so without thinking to pack a bottle of water.

Beyond the gates, wide rows of extravagant memorials spread out in a vast grid as far as eyes could see. Havana’s necropolis covers 140 acres, featuring more than 500 mausoleums, family vaults and small chapels. I was never going to see it all in a day, but I had a good go; beginning in the bottom corner and working my way around, one quadrant at a time.

Most of the monuments were built from pale stone and marble, designed in a classical style – pillars, urns, gates and arches – but it was interesting to see how the necropolis had evolved with time, and the influx of new ideas: modernist cubes and ancient pyramids, revolutionary figures with rifles and berets, communist icons alongside symbols of colonial wealth. In a far corner, row after row was filled with masonic graves. I passed square-and-compass motifs, all-seeing-eyes, pillars and letters and numbers that spoke in codes of hidden knowledge.

I seemed to have the place largely to myself that day – my only living company were men who worked with rakes and shears, sweeping dead leaves or tending to the sunburnt shrubs of the cemetery. Every so often a truck would drive past down one of the wide boulevards, followed by caretakers who stacked the vehicles with dead branches and rotten floral wreaths. I paused beside a stone pyramid to take a photo, the sweat from my face running off my brow and dripping down the body of the camera. As I was stood there, already wishing I’d brought some water, one of those maintenance workers approached me.

“Tour,” he said, “you want tour?”

I said No, he nodded in agreement, and then began his tour regardless. The man started pointing out the features of a crypt across the way, and then another, then waved for me to follow him. By this point I’d been in Cuba long enough to know the game. I thanked him, and paid him a dollar to leave me alone; he grinned, nodded, and I got the impression he was equally glad to have skipped the act and got straight to the punchline.

Four hours I spent in there, perhaps. That’s the problem with cemeteries – they seem to exist almost outside of time, outside of lived space (what Foucault called the ‘heterotopia’), and it’s incredibly easy then to lose track of time inside their walls. There was still so much more to see, but at some point my body began to give up. There was simply no shelter to be had here from the sun; I had run out of moisture to sweat out, and a fearsome headache was creeping up on me.

My time at the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón was at an end, and so I left the dead to their decadent sleep… retiring myself to the Old Town, La Habana Vieja, to wallow in air-conditioned darkness with a sweet, iced daiquiri.

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