Generally-speaking, Cubans are not fond of visiting cemeteries, they do so out of respect for their diseased loved ones, to pay them a visit on their birthdays or to mark anniversaries of their death by laying flowers and offering a prayer, but seldom to admire the artistic beauty of tombs and mausoleums or to appreciate the graveyard´s architectural value. And that’s a real shame, especially when we talk about the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon in Havana, one of the city’s grandest architectural jewels and one of the world´s most captivatingly beautiful cemeteries.
A myriad of architectural styles and designs harmoniously converge in this grand citadel of the dead, from Neoclassical to Renaissance, Moorish to Gothic, Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Eclectic and pretty much everything in between. There’s even a pyramid tomb in authentic Egyptian style. But the most predominant presence of all is that of the Romantic-Byzantine designs, in a wealth of themes and sculptures.
Colon Cemetery is not just the second-largest of its kind in the world, it’s also one of the three most historically important ones, on par with Paris’ Pere Lachaise and Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta (though far bigger than these two). Over 500 sculptures, ambitious monuments, grand mausoleums, ornate pantheons and family chapels and vaults can be found under an usually radiant sky, offering a unique retelling of Havana’s history told through the elaborate tombs of its buried citizens. A fascinating journey that will steal your heart.
My recent visit to Colon Cemetery
To most habaneros, a cemetery is a sombre place of mourning and not a recreational space in which to wander off, check out graves and read epitaphs; it´s actually considered disrespectful and rude by some to peruse stranger’s graves; while for others ,hanging out in a cemetery is a potentially dangerous activity as you could pick up the negative vibes of grieving spirits. Perhaps, this superstitious attitude will gradually change overtime now that the city´s grandest, largest cemetery has started welcoming foreign visitors, who are arriving in increasing numbers to admire its artistic value on guided tours. Citizens are still getting used to curious tourists’ visits and though they certainly don’t mind their intrusion, they certainly wouldn´t go about it in such a nonchalant way - to those that do they have an “allá ellos” attitude (kind of like “let them”, at their own peril). For most Cubans a visit to a cemetery is serious stuff, mournful stuff, it is not done with lightness, delight or curiosity but more out of a sense of duty to long-loved lost ones…
When I said to my mother I would be off to the cemetery to take some pictures for a blog I was planning to write, she didn’t like the idea one bit, and when my dad dropped me off in the car she insisted I was quick about it and didn´t linger on in case I would catch “something” (and no, she wasn´t referring to a cold!). She didn´t let my kids step out of the car either, because those innocent souls were even more vulnerable to dark spells and perturbed souls in agony who could cling to them. I am slightly superstitious, but nowhere close to my mum and I did silently ask for permission so the spirits would let me take photos of their final resting place while offering them a prayer. I felt at total peace wandering about, and, if anything, I thought that the people buried here rather liked the acknowledgement and attention my eyes and camera gave them, as I took the time to observe in detail, read and admire their resting abodes, their ageless forever homes.
Latin America´s most beautiful, largest cemetery of its kind
I do not make the statement above lightly. When I say that Havana’s Colon Cemetery is Latin America’s finest, it could be argued that actually it comes second to Argentina’s La Recoleta cemetery, which is considered number one in terms of the many notable personalities buried here (from Nobel Prize winners to First Lady Eva Peron and Napoleon´s granddaughter). But in terms of size, layout and number of monuments, vaults, mausoleums and crypts, Havana´s Colon cemetery outdoes Buenos Aires ´necropolis by quite a while. Both have invaluable architectural value, with a great diversity of styles, themes and monuments. Both are majestic, undying symbols of the cities they represent and their history. Comparing the two is a matter of subjective opinion after all, so to judge fairly you´d have to visit both. Yet, in my humble opinion, Cementerio Colon has a nostalgic, almost magic beauty to it that cannot be surpassed or even matched by any other. Perhaps that´s patriotic sentimentalism, but I´m not too biased after all. Architecturally and monumentally-speaking experts agree that this is the world’s largest, most valuable cemetery of its kind (it occupies 7.5 per cent of Havana’s surface) offering an extraordinarily grandiose panorama encompassing virtually all architecturally styles.
Why is it so beautiful? What makes Havana´s Colon cemetery so very uniquely special? Let´s start with the location. It couldn´t be more centric at the heart of Vedado, just a hundred metres from the city’s busiest and most cosmopolitan avenue (Avenida 23), yet it lies so artfully well removed from noise and bustle you would instantly forget its urban setting upon setting foot in its soothingly quiet gardens. It’s a carefully cut out giant rectangle of tranquil leafy avenues lined with graceful angels, saints, crucifixes and ornate crosses. Only the melodic chirping of the birds and a very distant buzz of traffic disturb the otherwise silent atmosphere.
Moving on to the setting and layout, once more I can´t emphasis enough on the fact that it couldn´t be more peaceful. The layout in itself is a meticulous, well-thought-out work of art, with evenly delineated areas and well-defined sections. The setting...oh well, it´s utterly romantic and highly scenic from every point of view. Unlike Buenos Aire´s counterpart, where you look at some monuments standing against the less aesthetically pleasing facade of modern, often gritty, blocks of buildings, Havana´s cemetery has no manmade structure rising taller than the monuments here - only trees and perfectly manicured greenery serve as backdrop, and do they make for a spectacular backdrop!
Let´s talk about the size next, Colon´s cemetery spreads out over 140 acres (56 hectares), making it the world´s largest in terms of monumental value (there are far bigger cemeteries in the U.S. alone, but they don´t boast nowhere near as many sculptures and ornate tombs per square metre). In size it comes second to Buenos Aires´ La Chacarita cemetery with its 230 acres (95 hectares). And while La Chacarita does indeed have some beautiful pantheons, crypts and vaults, its monuments can´t be remotely compared to Colon´s extraordinary number and sheer variety of sculptures and ornamental marble structures. It comes nowhere close in terms of art pieces carved in the finest, whitest Carrara marble, in fact very few others in the world do.
What´s behind a name? How the Colon cemetery came to be
Once you step into Havana´s Cementerio de Colon and your eyes shift from one grand monument to the next you´ll soon reach the conclusion that you´re admiring one of the most beautifully evocative and spiritual places you´ll ever come across. It´ll be little wonder to learn that it´s been a declared National Monument, and has a strong claim to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right (they´re working on that).
Its full, official name in Spanish is “Necropolis de Cristobal Colon” also commonly referred to as Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, named after discoverer of the Americas, Cristopher Columbus, at a time when it was planned for him to be buried here, but more on that later. First, let´s talk about how it came to be.
Colon’s cemetery in Havana was built to expand on a former smaller cemetery known as “Cementerio de Espada”, Havana’s first large-scale necropolis of its kind and also the first cemetery to be built outside a church in all of Latin America (1806 - 1878) . However, despite its initial success at providing a dignified burial place for “habaneros”, Espada soon proved insufficient and unable to keep up with the city´s fast-growing population, especially during times where cholera and yellow fever struck hard.
Before its construction, cemeteries had a somewhat undignified status as they were regarded as burial sites for the poor. Previous to its existence, the custom was for people (those who could afford it) to be buried in churches with an implicitly higher tariff the closer you were buried to the main altar. But towards the end of the 19th century, churches’ burial spaces were getting overcrowded and the practice begun to be considered unsanitary. It is at this point that Havana’s Archbishop Juan Jose Diaz de Espada (after whom the first cemetery was named) declares:
"To imagine that cemeteries are only destined for the poor and the unfortunate is a presumption, a mistake (...) as on Resurrection Day the Divine Omnipotence will take your bones all the same, be it from one sepulchre or the other."
The proposal to build what is nowadays known as Cementerio Cristobal Colon was first put forward by city governor Don Ramon Montalvo y Calvo in November 1854, with the idea of it serving as the grand final resting place for the Great Admiral Christopher Columbus, whose mortal remains were preserved in a niche at Havana’s Cathedral. After years of planning and to and fro bickering between the Church and the City Council as to whom would be granted the rights for such a construction - the Church won in the end as it had larger sums to finance such a monumental project - finally, towards the end of 1886 the Colon cemetery was inaugurated. It had taken 15 years from the time the first stone was laid to the time of its official inauguration. And yet, once founded it wasn’t nowhere near as grand and monumentally imposing as it is today, and took many years to slowly evolve into the magnificent art piece it stands as today.
So, is this Columbus’ final resting place then?
Getting back to whether Christopher Columbus ever got buried in what was purposefully built as his final resting place, the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem. As it happened, despite this being hailed as its final mortal abode, the actual transferring of his body from the Havana Cathedral to the Colon Cemetery never actually took place...or did it? Let´s go back in time a few hundred years and see.
Christopher Columbus had passed away 350 years prior to the cemetery´s construction on 20th May 1506, and soon after his death, his body embarked on a long meandering journey stopping at numerous ports of call, firstly buried in Valladolid, then moved to Seville, then Santo Domingo and finally Havana, where it got lost until his mortal remains could be identified and verified with certainty. But in the midst of it all, with the cemetery taking so long to be built from obtaining planning permission to its lengthy construction stages; something else happened - Spain had lost the Independence War against Cuba and as such was no longer happy for Columbus’ body to remain in the island. The former colony demanded the prompt return of the admiral’s remains. But Cuba wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. They first held on to Columbus for as long as they could, delaying the return for a while and then…perhaps a touch of trickery was in order.
Officially, Christopher Columbus was buried for one final time in 1899, at the Seville Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, in Seville, Spain. But ever since a discovery was made in 1877, Santo Domingo has disputed this, claiming they have Columbus’ authentic remains, found by a worker at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in a box inscribed with the words: “The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. For long, both cities have quarrelled as to which one of them holds the true Columbus remains, until a 2006 DNA test conducted in Seville proved that the bone fragments held there belonged in fact to the great discoverer of the Americas, after they were successfully matched against his brother Diego’s physical remains, which are also preserved in the same cathedral. However, this scientific prove doesn’t exclude the possibility that some parts of Columbus may still linger in the Dominican Republic…or elsewhere.
There’s another theory of course, a much lesser known and far less debated one (and perhaps that’s for the best). It has everything to do with the grand main entrance to Havana’s Colon cemetery and a legend about the mysterious dweller buried at the cemetery’s highest point…no brownie points for guessing who! Move on to the next section to find out more.
Legend, facts and mysteries surrounding the main entrance
“La Portada Norte” or the Northern Facade is the cemetery’s main gateway, a grand and ornate entrance rising over 21 metres in height and built in a romantic-Byzantine style with every detail of its construction bearing a hidden meaning. It spans a total 34.40 metres in length with walls being 2.5 metres thick. An example of the finest stonework in the city, this colossal, three-arched portico was sculpted by Jose Vilalta de Saavedra, a Cuban sculptor trained in Italy and also responsible for other great funeral monuments in the island. Standing and sitting atop the middle arch you find three figures; three women representing the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. Beneath them an engraved Latin inscription reads “JANUA SUN PACIS” which aptly translates as: “I am the door to peace”.
Other important details to note are the bas-reliefs found inside semi-circles just below the Three Virtues, depicting an episode of Calvary on one side, and a scene of Lazarus’ Resurrection on the other.
But the gate´s most singular and thought-provoking aspect is more about what lies inside it rather than what beautifies and adorns it on the outside. All of the entrance is actually a gigantic tomb. Yet very few people know that below the sculptures at the top, the ashes of an unknown person where placed, the soul of whom symbolically acts as the guardian to this monumental city of the dead. Such unidentified character also has the honour of being interred at the cemetery´s highest point...Now taking into account that Columbus ´designated final place was to be a monument erected in his honour at this very cemetery´s highest point...doesn´t this sound a little suspicious? Could it be that a physical part of Columbus also lies here after all?
The granting of a death wish
The hypothesis, backed by some historians, is called the “Conspiracion del Cambiazo” (The Switching Conspiracy) and it goes that a group of Cuban independence fighters, took it upon themselves to stop Columbus ´mortal remains leaving Cuba. One of them disguised themselves as a priest, managed to enter the sacristy and was able to substitute Columbus ´defunct remains for that of another person . None of this has been proven, of course, after all Havana is not openly contesting Seville for holding the authentic remains, and unlike Santo Domingo, the Cuban capital is not shouting out about it to the world - perhaps wisely so, thus achieving that it forever remains a secret so that no one can ever claim back the mysterious man´s ashes as their own.
Columbus asked to be buried in the Americas, he expressly said so, and some of his descendants tried to fulfil and honour his last will by shipping his bodily remains to the Dominican Republic and then to Cuba. It´s little wonder that he wanted to forever rest in the place that made him the most famous person in the world. So, it’s only fair that he would be granted him his final wish, wouldn´t you agree? I like to think that his death wish has at least been partly granted in this way, and it´s there for all to (not) see and wonder about, right at the entrance of the Caribbean cemetery that bears his name.
The state of the tombs and mausoleums
For years, believe it or not, the local government authorities did little to care and preserve for this magnificent citadel´s invaluable art pieces. Especially during the years that the island suffered it worst economic downturn after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, from the late 80s all through to most of the 90s (also known as the “Special Period”) the cemetery of Colon was badly neglected, almost to the point of total abandonment.
There was little to no maintenance, a very slack security system that gave way to frequent robberies, with tombs being stripped of their valuable objects, acts of vandalism and “santeria” rituals that entailed the opening of graves to retrieve human bones to be used in ceremonies. In times of dire need, people would savage this holy place to steal pretty much anything they could carry, including chunks of marble after lifting (and breaking) tombstone lids, headstones and engraved slabs. There were even stories circulating at the time that told of some families selling their late beloved’s bones to medicine students. The holy place was little respected during desperate times.
But thanks to the surge of tourism, the new millennium helped turn attention back to the ailing cemetery. The Historian of the City urged authorities to look at the decaying beauty of the cemetery’s valuable treasures in marble, granite and stone. Funds from the Office of the Historian of the City soon started being poured in the recovery of many crumbling monuments and sacked crypts to restore them to their original glory.
In some cases, some monuments were beyond saving, sadly, but the majority is starting to shine once again, albeit this being a very slow process, which means hundreds of monuments still need attention, a deep cleansing and polish and the restoration of structural damage. Still, despite all the years of neglect the Colon cemetery has bravely withstood adversity and stands proud and beautiful. The more tourists that visit it, the more their entry tickets (which cost 5 CUC) can go towards saving more and more stunning graves.
With garden landscapists always busy at work in the cemetery these days, no one can say this is an abandoned pace any longer. No one that takes time out of their Cuba holiday to visit it regrets it, which is why it has been awarded with TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence in 2017.
What not to miss - a quick itinerary
There are many itineraries to fill up an entire morning or afternoon in Colon’s cemetery. Actually, you could spend an entire day walking around from one gravestone to the next, contemplating sculpture after sculpture and you’d still probably not have seen all the beauty there is to be seen. But in order to see the grandest, largest, tallest, most impressive tombs you’ll only need a day, and if you’re really rushed for time, perhaps sparing just an hour would do. Although, it must be said the visit gets more rewarding the more you linger and wander around.
The grandest monuments and sculptures, the top unmissable ones to check off the list are all found along the main central avenue, also aptly named Avenida Cristobal Colon and the first stretch you come across after entering the necropolis. On either side of this long avenue you’ll find the most remarkable works of art in marble, granite and stone. This part is also referred to as Zona de Monumentos de 1ra Categoria (1st Category Monuments Area), it stretches along 300 metres and ends in front of the sober, yet majestic Capilla Central (Central Chapel).
Walking along Avenida Cristobal Colon
First up on our left we have the pantheon of the Counts of Mortera (Condes de Mortera), the first grand monument to be built along this path. Distinguished for its great catafalque, exquisitely chiselled to the smallest of details with an incredible wealth of decorative objects, upon which stands a Madonna holding the cross of faith. This is the final resting place of Don Manuel Salamanca y Negrete, who briefly held the post of Captain General of the Island until his demise (1889-1890) and who was allegedly poisoned for having authorised the return to Cuba of independence fighter, Antonio Maceo. Until this very day, his remains haven’t been claimed by anyone.
Next, on the left we have a tomb that’s collectively venerated by many Cubans. Called the Pantheon of Emigrated Cubans (Panteon de los Emigrados Cubanos) this graves holds the mortal remains of the parents of Cuba’s national hero, independence fighter, poet, writer and philosopher, Jose Marti. Dona Leonor Perez and Don Mariano Marti were both Spanish-born yet lived most of the lives in Cuba and supported their Cuban-born son in the fight against the Spanish colonisers. This tomb also serves as final resting place to the many Cubans living abroad that helped Jose Marti in exile with their financial and emotional support. Mainly residents of the U.S., the Cuban expatriates buried here helped fun 60 expeditions with weapons and accoutrement for the Cuban Liberation Army (Ejercito Libertador Cubano) along 30 years of war.
To our right, in front of the monument I’ve just mentioned we’ll come across the beautiful Chapel of Loredo Bernal (Capilla de Loredo Bernal) a thing of great beauty and finesse. This elaborate mausoleum, complete with Roman-style portico and Ionic columns as well as a mosaic-laden dome and bell tower is one of the finest examples of the convergence of styles that dominated the island’s architectural style towards the end of the 19th century. The Moorish pops of colour present in the dome-shaped ceiling contrast with the Neoclassical portico in a seamlessly harmonious way.
Equally impressive but in a totally different way, is the sculpture crowning the tomb of Don Alfredo Hornedo, who co-signed the Cuban constitution of 1940 and was also the founding president of Cuban newspaper “El Pais”, which had over 30,000 subscribers in the island during the 1950s. The sculpture depicts a seating man in a deep-thinking posture, clad in a tunic reminiscent of Greek and Roman style.
Onwards we continue and stumble upon an Egyptian-style obelisk in shiny red granite, with a medallion at the base bearing a bas-relief image of Major General Maximo Gomez, another hero of Cuba´s Independence War against Spain fondly remembered and hailed as one of the freeing saviours of the Cuban people. Despite being Dominican by birth and having arrived to the island as commander of troops for the Spanish army, he quickly sympathised with the Cuban cause and switched sides to fight for the liberation of Cuba. He is praised for having been one of Latin America´s most extraordinary military chiefs, alongside Antonio Maceo - together they successfully led and won many fights despite being vastly outnumbered. His final resting place deserved a position of honour and prominence in the cemetery´s main avenue.
Next, we come across the somewhat weathered yet grandiose crypt of one of the first presidents of the Cuban Republic, though he only assumed office for a total of 23 days before being overthrown by Batista in a military coup d ´etat. The final resting place of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes y Quesada (not to be confused with his father Carlos Manuel de Cespedes del Castillo, a national hero from the Cuban Independence Wars hailed as the Father of the Homeland or “Padre de la Patria”) enjoys a prominent location in the cemetery that befits his name and family history. Oddly enough, as you can see in the photo above, Cespedes ´mausoleum is positioned sideways, where the main door instead of facing the avenue looks south, facing a row of tombs. I don´t know the reasoning behind this peculiar orientation but it makes for a different perspective and strikes a discordant note. On one side of the mausoleum´s facade there is a medallion bearing Cespedes ´resemblance with an inscription below quoting his famous words after being forced to abdicate when dictator Fulgencio Batista overthrew him “On my account there will be no Cuban bloodshed nor foreign intervention”. With this statement he denied that there were two Cuban governments at war to avoid Washington intervening in Cuban affairs and spare Cuban lives in the event of an invasion.
A bit further on and we find ourselves at a crosspoint, right in the middle of the cemetery with two bifurcations on either side, leading us to Avenida Obispo Fray Jacinto whichever way we turn, where the 2nd Category Monuments (Monumentos de Segunda Categoria) are found. If we look ahead we see the second stretch of Avenida Colon, with its many eye-catching monuments stretching all the way down to the majestic central chapel.
This circular central area is called Plaza Colon (as it´s the place where Cristopher Columbus ´monument would have been erected had his ashes remained in the island). The tallest structure we can see from this point is the sky-scraping Monument to the Firefighters on the right-hand side, the highest sculpture found inside the necropolis and the most visually stunning due to its many intricate details. To the left a succession of mausoleums stand out in a variety of colours, from stone-grey to yellow, pale cream and bright white, leading to the large chapel at the centre-end known as Capilla Central, the only religious edification in Cuba to have an octagonal shape. It isn’t exceptional just because of its shape though, as it’s also the cemetery’s largest and highest construction, spanning 241 square metres in area and rising 28 metres high measuring from the floor to the tip of the dome. It can host up to 700 people and its interiors have beautiful stained glass windows. Its main feature is a large-scale alfresco painting depicting a scene of the Last Judgement on the wall backing the main altar.
But going back to where we were, right at the heart of cemetery Colon, everywhere we turn reveals rows of gravestones, monuments, crypts and mausoleums intersected by immaculately kept gardens and guarded by tall palm trees it’s as peaceful a sight as it is beautiful.
Along the way we’ll continue encountering some of the most notable monuments if we keep walking south toward the Central Chapel, often coming across ornate graves, monuments or mausoleums whose names or surnames we don’t recognise, their life stories a complete mystery (even the best tour guides won’t know the story of the people buried at each grand monument) but the last physical tribute to them a verifiable work of art and an ultimate tribute to the love their families professed them.
Most of the monuments along this second stretch of Avenida Colon were built between the 19th and 20th centuries. We’ll notice quite a few pillars and columns, which symbolically represent the link between earth and heaven. If they are truncated it means the life of the person buried beneath them was cut short early or abruptly. Often they are covered in a mantle in a mourning gesture. At times such mantle will be covered in a delicate crown of flowers.
A few steps further will take us to the colourful Chapel of the Mesa family in an authentic and rather unique Moorish-Gothic style blend. It’s elongated arched windows with beautifully contrasting stained glass at the top stand out, as do its white and grey horizontal stripes all around, a typically Arabic motif that manages to coexist with Gothic touches. The twisty, spiralling contour of its thin columns also set it apart from the rest.
Designed in a similar fashion and to the right of the Mesa monument we find the Chapel of the Zayas-Jaen family, even more grandiose than the former, especially so due to the fact that we can peek in its interior to find a faithful but smaller reproduction of Michelangelo’s famous “Pieta” sculpture, housed in the Vatican City’s St Peter Church. Backing the sculpture and providing it with a multi-coloured burst of sunlight is a delicate stained-glass window depicting a mournful scene from Jesus Christ’ Crucifixion. There are several other stained glass windows on either side of the chapel but the one in front is the easiest to view and photograph. A jaw-dropping work of art and no doubt a regal monument to Alfredo Zayas, a former President of Cuba, poet and lawyer who during his long and fruitful political career also held the post of Senator, President of the Senate, Vice President of Cuba and Mayor of Havana.
One of the cemetery’s most admired and most photographed monuments is up next, the very tall, sky-reaching Monument to the Firefighters (Monumento a los Bomberos) erected to pay tribute to the bravery of the Cuba firefighters who unjustly lost their lives one 17th May 1890 when the hardware store of Antonio de Isasi caught fire due to the violation of safety measures. A terrible explosion caused by explosive held inside, crushed a great number of firefighters, voluntary workers and curious onlookers who were almost instantly buried under the rubble. This great monument lamenting the great loss of lives was built in Genova by architect Julio Martinez and sculptor Agustin Querol.
Both artists went through painstaking levels of detail to charge the monument with a generous dose of symbolic touches. The bat figurines that crown the bars of the monument’s iron gates symbolise death caused by treachery as the information regarding the explosives kept in the store was deliberately withheld from the firefighters. The chains end in the shape of tear drops to symbolise the ciyt’s long-held state of mourning, while the sculpture at the very top represents the Angel of Faith, taking a firefighter in its arms and elevating him towards immortality.
There are four more statues cornering the base of the monument - the one to the front left represents Heroism, the one to the front right Abnegation, the one at the back left is Pain and the one to the back right Martyrdom. In my photos you can only see the two at the front and that is because due to the monument’s sheer height (and my modest stature) it was impossible for me to even get a glimpse of the ones at the back.
After passing the richly ornate baroque-looking yellow and white chapel to the right of the Monument to the Fireghters we are graced with the sight of the Angel of the Sword (Angel de La Espada) regally poised above the crypt of General of the Republic, Jose Miguel Gomez, who was president of the Republic between 1909 and 1913. This is an exquisite piece by Italian sculptors Bueoni Fexeand Fond O. Buoeirolami, which was a bit of a challenge to photograph of as there was a large tree in front of it covering a good portion of it, making it trickier to get a good angle. Still, I managed to get a reasonably decent close-up of, showing the angel’s haughtily solemn posture as it defies the wind that ruffles its bronze hair and tunic while holding a sword in a resting pose, highlighting the resting state of the diseased warrior.
Just a few steps from the monument to the firefighters we stumble upon a colossal gate in granite, with thick walls and an ornate wrought-iron bars guarding the afterlife home of another Cespedes family. With a perfectly moulded iron heart at the centre of it all, bursting through a Christian cross with the inscription “As you love, you will be loved” this tomb instantly captured my attention and captivated my heart. It’s also as grand as can be, like a mini fortress or castle. Truly beautiful. And different.
Simply outstanding and standing in stark contrast to its surrounding monuments in blindingly white Carrara marble is the black pantheon of the Blanco Herrera-Ortiz Family, sculpted in granite and having as its main centrepiece a large-scale figure of a lady in a seating position, leaning forward to read a book. Referred to as the “La Dama que Lee y Medita” (The lady that reads and meditates) I’m not sure if the reading theme had something to do with the family’s passion for books or if there were any writers or literature-related relatives interred here. Some say this tomb belonged to a Jewish family that settled in Cuba, the truth of it perhaps could only be found in the national library’s archives or by consulting with a local historian. A sober example of the Art Nouveau style that was brought to Cuba in the early 20th century, this monumental masterpiece, though faded and in need of a good polish is one of the cemetery’s most remarkable tombs. In funerary symbolism, the angels, cherubs or virgins shown to be reading, are to highlight the rich biography of the diseased, so perhaps that has something to do with it too.
The journey along Avenida Colon’s most noteworthy monuments would be over were it not for one all-important semicircular-shaped crypt in the purest, most eye-catching Art Deco style, the last eternal home of one of the city’s most scandalous lovers - Catalina Lasa and Juan Pedro Baro. Sadly, during my visit to the cemetery this monument was under repair, with wooden planks covering a good part of its facade, which meant there was little point in photographing its front, and the best I could do was snap it from the back. This great dome-shaped, bunker-like mausoleum encircles a passionate love story that shook up the Cuban society of the times, resulting in the first divorced woman of the nation, an aristocrat beauty whose love for Juan Pedro Baro proved too strong to resist. Her beauty was too compelling for him to ignore and he even created an exceptional yellow rose named after her - Rosa Catalina de Lasa. Such a rose would then be engraved by a prestigious French glazier on the crypt’s skylight so that each morning the sun rays turned the flower into a beacon of light shining down on her. As she died first during an accident in a trip to France, he embalmed her body, had it shipped back to Cuba and built her the most imposing, ornate tomb that money could buy. I am really going to have to get back to this one once repairs are done.
This wraps up the monuments highlighted along this most prominent part of the cemetery. Yes, I’ve missed a few, but the mentioned here are the most noteworthy, and after all I was only in this part of the cemetery for a little over half-an-hour and this first introduction to Colon’s sleeping marvels is only a quick itinerary after all. If you have time to spare, do stop at every monument on the way that catches your eye.
About a Miracle
There is one tomb that “habaneros” hold sacred in their hearts and it’s not out of veneration to a national hero, poet or person of celebrity status. There’s nothing too remarkable about the tombs’ sculpture either, not unless you know of the tragic story behind it. This grave’s fame is all to do with the compellingly tragic story of a humble couple and the untimely death of their unborn child, who died alongside her mother. The Tomb of Amelia “La Milagrosa” (The Miraculous One) is part legend, part magic and part miracle, so much so, that declared her a saint, and ever since (but also way before that happened) mothers and fathers of ailing children come here and pray to Amelia to save their little ones.
The Legend of Amelia
Amelia Goyre de la Hoz was a young, 23-year-old woman, who shortly after marrying the man of her dreams, died while pregnant and very close to her due date. After her death, Amelia’s grieving husband, Jose Vicente Adot, came to visit her and the baby’s tomb every day, all the while carrying a strange ritual. He first beat the rings against the marble slab, in a knocking gesture, he said this was to wake her, and then he proceeded to engage in a long monologue that lasted hours. When he left, he never turned his back on the grave, receding sideways or walking backwards.
At the time of Amelia’s burial the baby had been placed at her feet, and legend goes that when the coffin was reopened some time later to bury Amelia’s father-in-law, the baby was found cradled in Amelia’s arms. This is how the miraculous attributes to Amelia begun but that’s not all there is to it. Some time after her death, Jose Vicente’s poor economic situation drastically improved (another thing that people associated with Amelia’s powers) and he was able to commission the building of a sculpture of Amelia and their baby to Cuban artist Vilalta de Saavedra - this is the very same statue that stands on top of their grave to this day.
The sculpture of Amelia holding her baby in her arms contributed to cementing the myth surrounding the baby’s miraculous appearance on her arms upon the reopening of the vault, and no one knows when but one day, flowers laid by strangers started appearing on her grave. Soon after, more daring individuals started performing Jose Vicente’s ritual of beating the rings to call on her, offer a prayer and walk away without turning their backs to the grave. Amelia’s mourning husband didn’t like this one bit, if he spotted anyone doing this, he shooed them away with vigour and disgust. Regardless, people continued to visit Amelia to ask for the recovery of ailing children and deposited their faith in her miraculous powers.
To this day you can see people coming to pay their respects to Amelia in a gesture of gratitude, consolation or despair. They all perform her husband’s ritual at the grave, laying flowers and walking away without turning their back on them. Many have commissioned slabs with grateful inscriptions to be placed at her tomb and they now completely surround her final resting place as can be seen in the photos. In fact, someone at the cemetery told me they had to periodically change and replace them as there wasn’t room for all. I witnessed one lady performing the ritual and even lighting a candle. She can be seen in one of the pictures too.
A headstone with photos of Amelia and Jose Vicente was placed at the statue’s feet and reads
“Thank You Amelia, Thank You Very Much! We ask the Lord to protect your spirit and guide you on the same path He chose for you”
Remarkable Monuments elsewhere in the Cemetery
Beyond the “quick” itinerary along Avenida Colon, there are other magnificent must-see monuments you should endeavour to see, and it only means a deviation towards the cemetery’s first two sections, entering the maze of gardens and gravestones on the necropolis’ immediate right and left-hand sides.
First, a list of the monuments to be admired in the cemetery’s north-west section, found to the right as you enter through the main Northern Gate.
In the North-Western Section
Perhaps the most notable and certainly one of the most visited monuments in this part of the cemetery (an obligatory stop for even the quickest guided tours) is La Piedad, a faithful full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s original “Pieta” found inside Vatican City’s Basilica of Saint Peter. This exquisite copy, masterfully executed by unknown artists (their names got lost as the records of the marble company that imported the statue misplaced them over the years) rests on top of the pantheon of the Mendoza family. It is the second representation of “Pieta” in the Colon cemetery (earlier on I introduced you to the other one found inside the Zayas-Jaen family chapel on Avenida Colon) and the largest of the two. There is a third copy of the Pieta inside the Colon cemetery but this one was done in a completely different Art Nouveau style- you’ll find it in my Mixed Beauty All Around section a bit further on below in this article)
Jesus Christ and the Angel (Jesucristo y el Angel) is the biblical allegory that adorns the pantheon of Francisco del Valle and Family. This sculpted image of the Christian messiah illustrates the moment he is visited by a messenger angel and it kneels before him. While the image and design might be deemed conventional, what truly stands out is the size of the sculptur, being this the largest image of Jesus in the Colon Cemetery at 2.5 metres tall.
But the most exceptional and original representation of Jesus Christ is found a few steps further, when you come across the unconventional grandeur of the Mausoleum of the Falla-Bonet Family. Also known as the Christ of the Ascension, this pyramidal crypt has an ornate bronze gate with a richly detailed engraving of the ascension towards heaven of the diseased person’s coffin, carried on the shoulders of four pallbearers. To either side two mourning women sculpted in white Carrara marble say their goodbyes, with one of them holding a child as the purest representation of innocence while the other clasps her hands in a gesture of prayer.
The Christ crowning the monument at the top is the mausoleum’s ultimate piece de resistance, sculpted in bronze in an ascending posture as he heeds the call of his Father. From whichever angle you look at it, the realism of his features in his flight towards heaven is remarkable, as is his relaxed facial expression of ultimate faithful devotion and commitment. Few of Jesus Christ’s representations are as moving as this one.
Not too far from our previously-mentioned mausoleum you’ll find the otherwise sober white marble Chapel of the Aspuru Family were it not for the intricate relief work on its grand arched bronze door depicting a winged Madonna, a masterpiece by Italian sculptor Raffaelo Romanelli. The angelic womanly figure guarding the door to the crypt seems to be floating or levitating in a sort of spiritual ecstasy, with all of her features exquisitely drawn out to achieve a jaw-dropping realism, a visually stunning work of art that makes this piece one of the cemetery’s most valuable.
In the North-Eastern Section
After walking the first stretch along Avenida Colon and stumbling upon the central crosspoint otherwise known as Plaza Colon, if we take a turn to left towards Avenida Obispo Fray Jacinto and venture into its southwestern section, we’ll be regaled with a few other outstanding works of art that count among the cemetery’s most valuable sculptures and monuments. Namely, they are:
The Listening Angel - standing tall, closer to heaven than most of its surrounding counterparts is what has been dubbed as El Angel Oidor (The Listening Angel), a beautiful sculpture on an angel in a pose that suggests he is paying close attention to the cries and prayers of humans asking for forgiveness to their sins. Its mission is to intercede on behalf of God so that He grants them absolution and opens them the door to Paradise. With one hand cupping his ear and the other stretched out in a blessing gesture, this is one of the cemetery’s most singular angels among the hundreds sculpted here. The Listening Angel stands on the pantheon of the Marceau Family, a monument that dates back to 1909 as can be read on the inscription.
The Monument to the Executed Medicine Students (Monumento a los Esudiantes de Medicina Fusilados) unjustly shot on 27th November 1871 was erected to immortalise their unnecessary deaths and vindicate their memories, highlighting their innocence in a turbulent affair. Unfairly accused of desecrating the tomb of a Spanish journalist killed in Tampa in a duel to death with a Cuban counterpart, the thirst for vengeance (and increasing hate towards “criollo” Cubans who favoured independence) led Spanish authorities to gather false proof against a group of students after a security guard at the cemetery complained that they used to play in the necropolis. In record time, the corrupt Spanish authorities fabricated the false profanity, summoned dubious witnesses and did a quick trial to condemn them, sentencing eight of them to death and imprisoning the rest.
Years later, one of the surviving students worked with the assistance of an old gravedigger to find the remains of his friends and gathered funds to make a monument in their honour. Rising over ten metres tall, for a long time this was the cemetery’s highest monument. The centrepiece is the Angel of Innocence at the middle of the monument’s base, shown crossing the threshold of darkness towards the path of light and truth. On an upper level, to the right we have the representation of Public Conscience with a book in her hand. To the left stands Justice but without the traditional blindfold, in a nod to the trial’s partial nature. The mantle covering the upper column represents grief and mourning. On the sides of the plinth two bas-reliefs represent Theoretical Medical Science on the right and Practice on the left.
Oddly linked to the monument we’ve just referred to above due to an irony of fate, the majestic Mausoleum of Gener y Batet Family is an intricately woven masterpiece that stands out for its Eclectic-Romanticism mix, but underneath all the beauty lie darker intentions - a story of intolerance and pride. As it turns out, Jose Gener y Batet, Captain of the 6th Batallion of the Body of Volunteers who executed the medicine students, was directly responsible for their death sentence. His family’s mausoleum preceded the event but upon the erection of the grand Monument to the Executed Medicine Students in 1890, the tallest and most beautiful of the time, who also happened to be located just 100 metres from Gener y Batet’s, the latter couldn’t stand such boldness and figurative slap on the face. Which is why he immediately proceeded to enhance his family’s mausoleum by adding a marble monument to the chapel’s ceiling, thereby trying to belittle the student’s monument. The result is a clearly visible incongruous combination of colour, materials and styles - the ultimate paradigm to arrogance.
Mixed beauty all around
After walking along the main central avenue I decided to wander around in whichever direction caught my interest, with no reference point or agenda in mind. I wasn’t trying to find memorable or otherwise notable graves, yet I’m sure I encountered them anyhow, as even the ones that don’t have a compelling story behind them are so beautiful to look at you are certain you’re stumbling upon a masterpiece. And you’d be right. You might not know the stories behind these people’s lives, but upon viewing their graves, you’ll probably want to. I know I did.
Stumbling Upon Cuba’s Patron Saint
One of the most impressive sculptures I came across also happens to be a one-of-a-kind and the only representation of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre (La Caridad del Cobre) in the Colon cemetery. A monument rising over the pantheon of Ricardo Martinez and Family, this is not just the largest image of the virgin in the city, but in all of Cuba, with the monument rising over two metres high. Its a splendid depiction of the patron saint, recreating the scene when she revealed herself to poor fishermen at sea. Legend goes she was found floating in the waters of Nipe Bay (Bahia de Nipe, standing on a plank that read “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (“I am the Virgin of Charity”). The addition of “El Cobre” to her name is in reference to the town of El Cobre in eastern Cuba, where she was first sighted back in 1602. During his visit in 1998, Pope John Paul II crowned and blessed her after taking her on a procession. This sculpture is indeed the most beautiful representation of the virgin I’ve ever seen (and in Cuba you see her everywhere).
The Art Nouveau version of “Pieta”
The eye-catchingly modern design of the Aguilera Family´s pantheon is striking not just because of its black-and-white contrast of white Carrara marble against black granite, but because of its centrepiece - the large exquisitely chiselled bas-relief of La Piedad (Pieta) by Cuban sculptor Rita Longa. With a masterful use of of the smoothness of the white marble to create a stylized image of the purity of maternal love, Longa perfectly captured the feeling of sacrifice mothers have for their children.
The Angel of Silence
Lightly positioning her index finger on her lips, yet barely brushing them, the so-called Angel of Silence (El Angel del Silencio) is well-known for its demure expression requesting the peace and quiet that befits this solemn place. This figure was probably inspired by Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence and fertility of fields. Funnily enough, to me it doesn´t look like she´s asking for silence, more like she´s distraught, pensive, pondering on something she´s about to say. She´s not looking ahead to what´s facing her, instead her eyes are looking up, to he heavens, in a thoughtful, somewhat worried gesture.
The One-armed Angel
I don’t know anything about this monument or the family it belongs to but its beauty compelled me to photograph it. It’s a shame that this pretty angel has lost one of its arms and the one remaining is in such a bad state it may not stand the test of time for too long if left unrepaired. I particularly like the detail of the single rose at its feet, though I don’t know what it represents. An inscription on a finely sculpted parchment roll at the base reads “R.I.P. Manual Suarez Garcia, born on 14th September 1885 and died on 1st December 1916". The angel stands out in this part of the cemetery, rising above all the nearby gravestones and sculptures.
The Embracing Angels
Well, they might not actually be embracing, it’s more like one angel is leaning on the other but I loved this sculpture all the same, especially because there’s none other like it in the cemetery. It had a massive leafy tree right in front of it, so proved difficult to photograph, but I did try my best, as I loved these two angels’ closeness and endearing gesture of love all the same.
The Wreath-Carrying Angel
What moved me about this detailed sculpture is not just the beauty of the monument per se, but its location and the fact that the wreath-holding anger is backed by a palm tree, seemingly sprouting from behind the monument. The perfect combination of natural and manmade beauty.
The Childlike Angel
Cute, with soft rounded figures I’m not sure this sculpture was purposely intended to represent a cherub, but due its short stature and delicate features that’s what it looked like to me. In a pose of devoted prayer it stands pleading over the grave of Jose Bedoya Garcia and Wife.
This beautiful cherub here stands as one of the tallest sculptures in its surrounding environment, looking adorable and sweet while holding a wreath of flowers and looking down sweetly over the grave of those it protects.
The Cross Holders
Holding there’s quite a few of these I noticed. Some cling to it in a tightened grasp with a solace-seeking expression that speaks of sadness and devotion, but also hope.
Others lean on it as comfort to their grief or support themselves in it in act of faithful devotion. Invariably their expression is mournful, melancholy, devotional or yearnful.
A Madonna barely touches it on the photo above, seemingly attempting to hold it but lacking the strength in her sorrow.
A mother with her child’s head resting on her knee holds on to the cross in an expression that seems to look for answers or salvation. The child itself with his eyes closed also seems sad or mourning. Almost like an instant answer to her prayers, a few metres down stands a similarly-sized sculpture of an angel, so that they look to be facing each other. One of those unintentional turns of fates that works in favour of art.
There are many unknown graves and tombs that caught my eye, and I photographed as many as I could on my short visit, which was way too short for my liking, mostly due to the fact that my dad was outside waiting on the car and came to interrupt me because I was taking too long. I was basking in so much art and beauty that I lost track of time. Few other places in the world are so beautiful, peaceful and enchanting.
These pictures were taken over two separate days, the first day was a quick visit that had to be cut short because it was midday and the sun was getting too strong (if I had brought an umbrella or hat like many do it would have been bearable). The next day I came back but it still fell rushed (I was on a holiday visiting family so my itinerary didn´t allow a lot of free time). It was early in the morning on the second day which explains the difference between brighter photos (the ones taken at midday) and the slightly greyer ones taken in the early morning mist.
Tips for a memorable visit
Ever since the Office of the Historian of the City started pouring funds into the cemetery´s recovery and upkeep, a charge to enter it has been introduced to those who come on a tourist visit. Most ordinary Cubans don´t pay, especially if they come to pay their respects to their loved ones, but foreign visitors are asked for a 5 CUC to contribute to this vast cemetery´s complex maintenance and repair works. For a small added fee you get to see it all with the help of a knowledgeable guide that will take you to see the main monuments.
My biggest tip is to make it here before midday or in the afternoon after 3 p.m. as to avoid the sun´s strongest hours as there isn´t much shade in most places and the combination of heat and brightness can be enough to make you light-headed. All that sparkling white marble and a blinding sunshine can certainly prove too much. As befits the solemn nature of the citadel of the sleeping dead, use your common sense and respect the graves, don´t sing, dance or speak too loudly, and don´t laugh outloud either. Remember, most Cubans visit this place in a mournful state-of-mind and they wouldn´t appreciate any smiling faces or giggles.
The most beautiful art gallery under an open sky
The quickest, easiest conclusion I instantly made of my visit to the Necropolis Cristobal Colon was that I want to be back. I longed to return before I left it, I would even like to know it like the back of my hand one day. There´s so much evocative art, longing, nostalgia and beauty all around that you want to get to know the story behind every tomb and every sculpture. Even if you don´t, your mind wanders as you imagine the lives of those who peacefully and often majestically rest here for eternity and beyond.
As a side note both my great-grandmother and grandfather (who died when I was 15 and 11 respectively) are buried here, in a modest family pantheon that has no monument or sculpture but a simple white marble slab with an inscription. Maybe one day I will add to that a marble engraving bearing their names, and maybe one day, I too will share that space among the silent souls of this magnificent cemetery.