17 Jul Cuba’s funerals: cheap and especially uncheerful
CUBANS had nine days to mourn Fidel Castro, who died in November 2016. After a state funeral, soldiers escorted his ashes from Havana to Santiago, retracing the route taken by the revolutionary army he led. When someone less important dies, undertakers have to hurry up. Just two funeral homes have refrigeration, and that is reserved for foreigners and VIPs. Because of Cuba’s searing heat, most folk have to be in the ground within 24 hours. Cuba’s nine crematoriums handle a tenth of the 99,000 people who die each year.
Funerals, like education and health care, are free in the socialist state (though cremation costs money). Cubans pay in other ways. Coffins, made by the state-owned forestry company, are flimsy. Pallbearers must carry them with extreme care, lest they fall apart. Government workers get better coffins; children are buried in white ones. With flowers in short supply, mourners make wreaths from twigs and leaves. That horrifies Miguel Pons, one of two deacons at the chapel at the Colón cemetery in Havana. “I would not allow someone in my family to put those ‘flowers’ [on my coffin], God forbid. Never,” he says.
Demand for funereal paraphernalia is rising because of Cuba’s ageing population. Of the 24 cemeteries in Havana, all of which were nationalized in 1963, 20 have run out of space. At the Colón graveyard the mausoleums of important pre-revolutionary families near the gates give way at the periphery to unmarked stone slabs. These cover vaults containing up to 24 coffins in which the newly deceased rest for two years. After that relatives must collect the bones to make room for fresh corpses. Many deposit the remains in a nearby ossuary, which houses 80,000 skeletons.
The cash-strapped government promised in January to expand some cemeteries and build more crematoriums. Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s president since April, is eager to boost his popularity. Treating the dead better would create goodwill among the living.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline: “Not going gently”