Imagine a cemetery where the decor mirrors the state of the city surrounding it; imagine elegant plinths crumbling away and rusting railings guarding them. This is the reality of Cementerio Colon, a sprawling 140 acre site in the Vedado district of Havana, where the lines of graves are so long that there are actual streets carving up each section.
There’s as much decay here as in the city centre, but there’s also a sense of belonging, with the tributes left to loved ones being much more personal and emotional than anything you’d encounter back in the UK. Yet many of the graves are poorly maintained because the relatives left behind have escaped Cuba and managed to emigrate elsewhere, leaving some corner of the cemetery to fall into obscurity in their absence. This is what I found when I spent a morning inside the gates…
It was a boiling hot day behind the walls of Cementerio Colon, and the place was hardly crowded. A few small clusters of fellow tourists gathered at some of the more high-profile tombs, but most of the cemetery was quiet, punctuated only by the brief sound of a funeral march played on a trumpet. I showed the security guards my ticket – yes, you pay to visit here – and picked an area to start wandering in. The sun was unrelenting as I weaved my way past the more anonymous plots, preferring to look for unusual names or tributes and carve my own path.
Internet research told me there are different sections of the cemetery set aside for certain professions and classes, but I could quickly identify the wealthier tenants with faithful family members or friends on hand to keep their graves looking eerily fresh. Others had elaborate headstones that were now broken into pieces, or plaques haphazardly placed upside down, standing out from their neighbours. One grave had no flowers and hardly any inscription on the headstone, but there was a lone beer bottle placed beside it. Perhaps a relative had come to visit, or perhaps some kids had chosen this unfortunate spot as the place to go drinking.
Working my way closer to the exit, I spotted a funeral party beginning to form. The mourners weren’t dressed in black but in everyday clothes, full of colour and life. They headed towards piles of floral wreaths, either on foot or in cars, and then began to assemble around the grave. This was when the concept of being a cemetery tourist began to feel a bit uncomfortable and the musty history of the older tombs and the elaborate mausoleums collided with the here and now. I turned around and left the mourners to their ceremony, wondering what they must think of the camera-wielding gawpers traipsing past, searching for a bit of dark tourism.
Visiting Cementerio Colon remains one of the best parts of my time in Havana, and it felt as though I understood the state of the city better after seeing the resting place of many of its residents. I’d urge you to spend an hour or two here if you get the chance – for the same price as a daiquiri you can learn about Havana’s people.