Coffins First, Boxes Second / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home closed for repairs. (14ymedio)
Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home closed for repairs. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 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 transport 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 cremated.

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 Salud 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 Health 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.