Photo Essay: Roaming Cementerio Colon, Havana

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.

Cementerio Colon View

The cemetery, seen in sunshine and shadows.

Cementerio Colon Mausoleum

One of the mausoleums, with intricate carvings and metalwork.

Cementerio Colon Maudlin

This melancholy carving stood out for me.

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…

Cementerio Colon Decay

The central stone column had lost its decorative top.

Cementerio Colon Alvarez

This mausoleum was one of many undergoing maintenance work.

Cementerio Colon Shadows

Scrolled metalwork divided two large plots.

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.

Cementerio Colon Nuestro Amor

The inscription translates as: ‘Our prayers and suffrages are evidence of our love’.

Cementerio Colon Sun

Sunlight crept around this memorial.

Cementerio Colon Walk

A lone visitor walked down this street.

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.

Cementerio Colon Stone

This headstone was left upside down.

Cementerio Colon Statue

A statue of an important local.

Cementerio Colon Focus

Rusting metal on one plot.

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.

Cementerio Colon Face

Expensive Gothic carvings.

Cementerio Colon Scaffolding

The cemetery felt like a work in progress.

Cementerio Colon Streets

Streets marked by forlorn-looking signposts.

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.

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