Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón - City of the Dead

Havana Travel Blog

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Perhaps the most interesting stop on our Havana tour in the vintage ’54 red & white Dodge car was the visit to the “Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón” in the Vedado section of Havana. Considered the second most important cemetery in the southern hemisphere after La Ricoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina, “Colón Cemetery” is historically important to Cuba for several reasons: the remarkable architecture of the main memorials; the loved ones and other notable persons interred here; and, the period of Cuban history which it spans. Named for Christopher Columbus, the cemetery was established around the early 1870’s on the site of the even older Espada Cemetery. Needing more burial space due to the cholera outbreak of the late 1860’s, a competition was held for the design of a new cemetery in Havana; in 1869, Calixto Arellano de Loira’s entry was chosen as the winner -- de Loira was a Spanish architect living in Cuba at the time.

Today, the cemetery covers approximately 140 acres and contains 800,000 +/- grave sites. Laid out in a grid, the major lanes form a cross and at its center is the neo-Romanesque church called the "Capilla Central" which was completed in 1886.

A saying, “The pale death enters both the cabins of the poor and the palaces of kings," has been associated with the cemetery and it may attempt to explain that though the most expensive and ornate of grave memorials may be what visitors first see on entering the cemetery, the cemetery was designed for all and Cuban citizens of all rank can be buried here. Today, burials are paid for by the Cuban government.

An introduction to the marvelous art inside the cemetery began as we entered through the Main Gate or North Gate which is similar to the Arc de Triumph --- the massive gate has a large center arch flanked on either side by smaller arches all combined into one structure.

The exquisite and intricate architectural detailing of the gate includes demi-lune medallion friezes: `Jesus crucifixion and `Lazarus` resurrection. In 1901, a beautiful Carrara marble sculpture entitled “The Three Theological Virtues” was placed atop the largest arch and the figures represent faith, hope and charity. There is a Latin inscription, “Janua Sum Pacis,” on the base of the sculpture meaning “Gate of Peace.”

Not too far from the Main Gate and on the main north to south avenue in the cemetery, we met up with a local guide who related the history of the cemetery and explained the symbolism on several of the most well-known memorials; though our guide spoke very passable English, he spoke with such a heavy Cuban accent (as you would expect) that I missed much of what he was saying and also due to the fact that I dragged behind because I wanted to take photos.

Grave of "La Milagrosa"

Perhaps for Cubans, the most significant memorial here is that of  Señora Amelia Goyri --- “La Milagrosa” or the “Miraculous One,” who died in childbirth on May 3, 1901, and was buried with her child at her feet.  Señora Goyri’s memorial sculpture of a woman with a large cross and a baby in her arms portends the circumstances surrounding La Milagrosa. The story as told by our guide related the legend that Señora Goyri’s husband was so distraught over her death that he visited the grave sometimes several times a day. The flat marble slab, like others, had an iron ring at each corner and her husband always knocked one of four iron rings on the slab and then backed  away so he faced her grave for as long as possible.

Monumento de Los Bomberos
As the unusual practice at Colón Cemetery  is that bodies are exhumed 3 – 5 years after the initial burial, and the remains placed in a smaller box, this was also the case with Señora Goyri. The story goes on to say that when the bodies were exhumed, her body was uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity, holiness or saintliness in the Catholic faith) and the baby, who had been buried at its mother's feet, was allegedly found in her arms. Since then Señora Goyri has been called “La Milagrosa.” Seeking an answer to their prayers or wishes, we saw people leaving flowers, burning incense, and knocking on the grave with the aforementioned rings.

The magnificent 75-ft. memorial known as “Monumento de los Bomberos” dedicated to the  firemen who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890.

Atop the Monumento de Los Bomberos, an angel cradles the body of a fallen firefighter
The memorial features the marble likenesses of each man who diedThe sculpture’s details are full of symbolism such as the tear-shaped bangles in the black, iron chain surrounding the monument; the bats which in Cuba symbolize good luck, brotherhood, and faithfulness; the pelican, etc.

The Capilla Central, the church painted in deep ochre and brick red with white lacy, architectural adornment, was the point at which our tour terminated. Out group, grateful for the efforts of our local guide, rewarded him generously as we knew that any tips given would add greatly to his monthly income.

Colón Cemetery is quite unlike any other I have seen in person up to this point. The architectural richness and character of this cemetery speaks volumes --- not only about those who have died, but about the people who lost loved ones and commissioned these exceptional memorials, as well as the care and ultimate skill of the craftsmen who created them.

Likeness of firefighters
For me, somehow this made the cemetery seem less a place of sorrow than one of hopeful remembrance.

vances says:
The plot thickens.....

Posted on: Jan 13, 2018
starship1 says:
@Vances - It really is an amazing spot! I have recently learned that at least 2 musicians/singers from the original Buena Vista Social Club are buried here as well.
Posted on: Jan 13, 2018
starship1 says:
@Toonsarah - Glad you could finally see the photos which don't really do justice to how beautiful this section of the cemetery really is. Thanks for all the smiles!
Posted on: Jan 13, 2018
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Grave of La Milagrosa
Grave of "La Milagrosa"
Monumento de Los Bomberos
Monumento de Los Bomberos
Atop the Monumento de Los Bomberos…
Atop the Monumento de Los Bombero…
Likeness of firefighters
Likeness of firefighters
Symbolism on Monumento de Los Bomb…
Symbolism on Monumento de Los Bom…
Tear drops in wrought-iron link ga…
Tear drops in wrought-iron link g…
Capilla Central - church at crossr…
Capilla Central - church at cross…
Lacy architectural adornment on Ca…
Lacy architectural adornment on C…
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