Odd though it may sound, Cemetario Cristobal Colon (informally known as "Colon Cemetery") stands among Havana's best-loved attractions. At Colon, named for explorer Christopher Columbus, visitors find more than 500 chapels, vaults and mausoleums, the graves of notable citizens—and countless stories.
Many resting places are marked in distinctive ways. The grave of chess master Jose Raul Capablanca lies beneath a marble playing piece; a 75-foot monument pays tribute to firefighters killed in an 1890 conflagration, and a photo and inscriptions mark the tomb of Buena Vista Social Club member Ibrahim Ferrer.
"Amelia and Her Baby," the resting place of a woman who died of childbirth complications along with her infant, has taken on a mythic quality. According to legend, "La Milagrosa," ("miraculous one") was buried with the child at her feet. Years later, the bodies were exhumed, and the baby was discovered in her arms. A life-size marble statue stands at the site. Visitors pray or offer thanks, following a ritual begun, it is said, by Amelia Goyri's grief-stricken husband in 1903.
Over 140 acres, many art styles compete for attention. One can see Art Deco, Egyptian, Renaissance, Byzantine, and others. Cemetery Colon's elaborate sculptures and huge headstones belie its humble history:
In 1868, plans were begun to convert an old burial ground into a modern cemetery. The principal architect, Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso, graduate of Madrid's Royal Academy of Arts of San Fernando, died before the project was completed—becoming Colon’s first customer.
You may be surprised to learn that Colon follows a centuries-old practice of renting, rather than selling, graves. After a few years, bones are turned out to make room for new occupants. More than one million bodies have been buried in the cemetery’s 800,000 or so plots.
Colon is one of the world’s best-known, most-frequently visited cemeteries. An inscription at the main entrance near the striking yellow chapel reads, roughly translated, "Pale death enters the palaces of kings and the cabins of the poor the same." And so it does. Visitors will find Colon’s history, architecture, and legends as rewarding as they are sobering.
Have you every visited Cemetery Colon? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below or post to the insightCuba Facebook page.
Text by Chelsea Lowe
Photo by Robin Thom