News and Facts about Cuba

Coffins First, Boxes Second

Coffins First, Boxes Second / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar
Posted on March 8, 2016

14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 7 March 2016 — One’s last will reveals
much about the life one had or wanted to have. Some ask for a glass of
rum or a lit cigar at their wake, while others dream of returning their
ashes to the courtyard where they took their first steps. To achieve
these “dreams for eternity,” the families of the deceased have to
overcome many obstacles, which range from the lack of funeral
to the scarcity of “boxes for the dead.”

At nine in the morning this Friday, at the Marcos Abreu Funeral Home on
Zanja Street, the employee serving the public cannot cope. The phones
are ringing off the hook and in front of her a crowd is trying to
streamline the sad paperwork of burying or cremating a loved one. But
death in Cuba also takes its time, just like the bureaucrats.

Official stamps, death certificates and the identity cards of several
deceased people pass in front of the official’s eyes, as she tries to be
efficient, but the intricate funeral mechanisms don’t let her. “My
deceased has spent 24 hours at the crematorium and no one is telling us
anything, we don’t know what’s going on,” complains Lorenzo Julian, an
architect, 67, whose sister left in her last will that she wanted to be

Amid the pain of the loss, there is barely time to cry. “Here you have
to line up even to die,” a recently-widowed lady shouts at the door of
the office, protesting the poor quality of the coffin assigned to her
husband. “It is practically bottomless and they didn’t give us the pane
of glass to be able to see him so the bad smell doesn’t get out,”
explains the old lady.

An elegant woman asks if there isn’t some option other than the
State-produced coffin. But death equalizes many on the island.
Privately-run casket businesses barely exist. “Here we can’t accept
coffins made elsewhere,” the employee clarifies to the demanding
bereaved. “Before we could offer metal boxes, if you paid in convertible
pesos, but this option no longer exists,” she concludes.

The owner of a carpentry shop on Street close to the funeral home
says, “Here we make beds, living room furniture, display cases, but I’ve
spent 28 years in this business and we’ve never made coffins,” and he
adds that they don’t have the boards for that kind of work. “I would
only make those things over my dead body, it gives me the creeps just
thinking about it.”

Despite the jokes and necrological allusions that fill the popular
imagination, Cubans have a very serious relationship with death. Unlike
our neighbor, Mexico, with its grinning skull Catrina and family meals
around the graves of the deceased, on the island every funeral ritual is
serious and tearful. Only in some cases are goodbyes enlivened with
music or parties.

“He wanted his rum and rumba, so we are doing it to please him,”
explained Asdrubal, whose 91-year-old grandfather died this week in
Central Havana and left specific instructions for his send off. “I don’t
want to cry, no I don’t want to cry, when I die I don’t want to cry,”
the young man says his grandfather used to sing. “So we did it like a
song, without crying,” he added.

The tears that weren’t shed with the last breath of the family patriarch
were about to fall during the paperwork to arrange his wake. The
Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home, on Zanja and Belascoain Streets, has
closed for repairs because of the poor condition of the property and the
worse quality of service. The body of Asdrubal’s grandfather had to wait
more than ten hours for them to take it from the house. The employee who
answered the complaint kept asking for “calm,” because there wasn’t any
“transport available.”

Finally, the remains of the old man arrived in one of the rooms of the
Marcos Abreu Funeral Home. Then began what his grandson calls “the old
man’s second death.” The deceased had said he wanted to be cremated, but
an employee of the state establishment said the only working crematorium
was in Guanabacoa and the one in Santiago de las Vegas was broken and
its work was piling up.

The service must be requested at the funeral home that corresponds to
the place of residence, and it is there that the family is told if there
is capacity in the furnaces. Subsequently, they pay 340 Cuban pesos in
advance and choose the option of going to the crematorium or collecting
the remains at the funeral home itself.

The relatives present their documentation and choose the urn in which to
collect the ashes. If they want, they are shown the body of the deceased
through a glass, just in front of the entrance to the incinerator. The
process lasts between an hour and an hour and a half and at the end the
customer is given the urn with the ashes.

An employee of the Guanabacoa crematorium, who preferred to remain
anonymous, told 14ymedio that the problem wasn’t only that “the
equipment breaks” but that “there are more and more people choosing to
be cremated.” The process of cremation started in 2006, subsidized by
the state and costing 300 Cuban pesos (less than $15 US), but often
there is an “extra payment” to the employees to get a turn or to hasten
the entrance to the oven.

However, many families prefer going through this web of corruption
rather than dealing with what for many years has been the vicissitudes
of a vault or a tomb in one of the island’s cemeteries. Buying a private
niche in a cemetery in the capital costs around 400 Cuban convertible
pesos (CUC) on the informal market, a year’s salary for the average worker.

“We are going to bring this home, which is where he should be, with his
family” said Asdrubal regarding the ashes of his grandfather, who
finally and thanks to a family member who emigrated and who sent the
money in record time through Western Union, was cremated this weekend.

During the last session of Parliament, the Commission of and
Sports warned of the poor “technical availability of hearses,” the
delays in collecting the corpses and the poor quality of the wood
“allocated by the State Forestry Enterprise for the production of
coffins.” The problems facing the sector are compounded by the lack of
“surgical gloves, cotton, cosmetics, razors, among other resources
necessary for the work undertaken in funeral homes and cemeteries.”

Lined with a dark gray cloth, the boxes for the dead sold at the
subsidized price have declined in quality over the years and can barely
contain the body of the deceased. “We have to support them carefully
from below, because it’s happened to us that the dead have fallen out
before being put in the grave,” confessed Nicanor, an old gravedigger at
Columbus Cemetery who is not under contract but whom other employees
give “a little something” for his work.

The coffin of a dead man who arrived at Havana’s most important cemetery
this Friday is made from pine, twisted and hollowed out by termites. In
one corner the nails are missing and the relatives fear that it will
come open in the midst of the church service. “This shows a lack of
respect,” a nephew of the deceased told 14ymedio. “What can you expect
for the dead with things are equally hard for the living?” he asked. The
deacon hurries the final goodbye and the box leaves the chapel on the
verge of falling apart.

A few minutes later a pompous funeral arrives with several cars and
buses carrying the colleagues of the deceased officer of the Armed
Forces. The widow weeps in front of the polished wood coffin. The
ministries and important institutions such as the Council of State have
their own carpenters for when a “personality” dies. Their coffins are
very different from those of ordinary Cubans: solid and with metal inlays.

While the polished box with the soldier’s remains is being placed in the
niche, several kilometers away Asdrubal’s family hastily downs their rum
and celebrates the arrival of the amphora with their grandfather’s
ashes. “Old man, you are where you wanted to be, with your family and
your drink close by,” says the grandson, while filling a glass and
lighting a cigar.

Source: Coffins First, Boxes Second / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar |
Translating Cuba –

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