In a city so full of life as Havana it seems a bit perverse to visit a cemetery. On the other hand, Necrópolis de Colón, named after the Spanish word for Columbus, is not just any graveyard. It encompasses 140 acres and is one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the Americas, filled with thousands of above-ground tombs, beautiful marble statues, and elaborate mausoleums.
Many important figures in Cuban history, culture, sports, and politics are buried here. Máximo Gómez, one of the heroes of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain occupies a prominent place near the main entrance, as does a memorial to 28 firefighters killed in a fire in Havana in 1890. Korda, the photographer who made the iconic image of Che Guevara lies in repose, as well as several musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club. The graves of some of the guerrillas who died during the Cuban Revolution are located here. The US sailors and Marines who were killed in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 were buried in the Necrópolis before being re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The most famous tomb is that of La Milagrosa, a Cuban woman who died in childbirth; when her tomb was opened years later her body had not deteriorated, which was taken as a sign of a miracle, or milagro. Ironically, Christopher Columbus for whom the cemetery is named, does not reside here.
The light reflecting from the surfaces of all of the marble and concrete intensifies the tropical sun and is almost blinding as I walk through the place on a cloudless Sunday morning. I notice people buying flowers from stands near the entrance to put on the graves of deceased loved ones, and think this ritual might be more interesting to document than simply taking pictures of tombs. But the idea ultimately proves unproductive, so I decide to do something that often leads me to a photograph: I wander aimlessly.
Tolkien wrote that “not all those who wander are lost,” and I soon find myself approaching a group of people dressed in white and gathered around a tomb. Not wanting to intrude upon their grieving, I stop and watch from a respectful distance until my presence is noticed and acknowledged. They are practitioners of Santería, a syncretism of catholic and west African religions common in Cuba. I learn that they are mourning the passing of Babalawo Oluo Siwagu, a respected priest who had died four days earlier. His daughter is seated nearby as other family members seal his tomb, I think as a ritual.
With the daughter's permission I make a few photographs and then leave, grateful to have been led here, and allowed to share such an intimate moment with this family and with a part of the culture of Cuba.