The cars, cocktails and cigars are why many go to Cuba but to get a deep sense of the island's history, you'll want to add these cemeteries to your list.
Cuban cemetaries Tomas Estrada Palma Santa Efigenia
Tomas Estrada Palma Santa Efigenia. Photo: Talek Nantes

The cemeteries in Cuba are notable for their funerary statuary much of which is museum worthy. In fact, many visitors consider these cemeteries to be outdoor museums. Also noteworthy are the legends surrounding some of the cemeteries’ most colorful characters. I highly recommend a visit on your next trip.

Specifically, among the remarkable Cuban cemeteries, you should put these three on your list: the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s eastern region; the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, also called the Necrópolis de Colón and Cementerio La Reina in Cienfuegos.

1. Cementerio Santa Ifigenia – Santiago de Cuba

The Cementerio Santa Ifigenia was founded in 1868 northwest of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city. As the city’s population grew, this remarkable graveyard had to be moved to the outskirts of Santiago for sanitary
reasons, where it was built over the original Cementerio Santa Ana. There the cemetery continued to grow along with the city.

The Cuban cultural legacy within Santa Ifigenia is considered so precious that the cemetery was declared a national monument in 1979. Much of Cuba’s recent history is displayed across the cemetery’s 133,000 square meters
of wide avenues and manicured landscapes.

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The second largest cemetery in Cuba after Havana’s Colón Cemetery, Santa Ifigenia’s value derives from its artistry and magnificence as well as from being the final resting place of the country’s notable men and women, its national heroes.

As you stroll among the mausoleums of the cemetery, you’ll see many examples of exquisite funerary architecture among the graves decorated with blazing white marble, granite crosses and polished brass.

“Don’t bury me in the dark to die like a traitor, I am a good man who will die facing the sun.”

Jose Martí

The most visited and culturally significant tomb in the cemetery is the burial site of patriot, poet, journalist, professor and essayist, Jose Martí, Cuba’s national hero. His tomb, built in 1951, is number 134 in the
southern section of the cemetery.

One of Marti’s poems states: “Don’t bury me in the dark to die like a traitor, I am a good man who will die facing the sun.”

Marti’s tomb is a large, hexagonal shaped tower. The shape and the positioning of the tomb allow Martí’s coffin to always receive sunlight. As long as there is daylight, Marti’s coffin will always face the sun.

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Marti’s poem continues: “When I die, without a country but without a master, I want to have a flag and a bouquet of flowers in my tomb.”

A Cuban flag covers Marti’s coffin and a bouquet of fresh flowers lies nearby. His wishes were respected and honored.

Cuban cemetaries jose marti tomb
Jose Martí’s resting place. Photo: Talek Nantes

The tomb is supported by pillars, each representing one of Cuba’s provinces. It is said that Marti’s ashes lie on a handful of soil from each country of the Americas, to symbolize the statesman’s influence in the hemisphere.

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The tomb is supported by pillars, each representing one of Cuba’s provinces. It is said that Marti’s ashes lie on a handful of soil from each country of the Americas, to symbolize the statesman’s influence in the hemisphere.

Military guards are present throughout the day and night. They perform a changing of the guard ceremony every 30 minutes. As the ceremony progresses, the guards, both male and female, goose-step their way from the cemetery’s
entrance to the front of the mausoleum. It is an emotional and beautiful ceremony executed with military precision.

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Other notable Cubans resting in Cementerio Santa Ifigenia include Cuba’s first presidents, Tomás Estrada Palma and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes; Santiago de Cuba’s favorite son, Emilio Bacardí-Moreau (of the famous rum
family) and Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame.

The cemetery holds the remains of many heroes of Cuba’s wars of independence. Mariana Grajales, mother of the Maceo brothers, heroes of Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain, is also buried here. When told three of her sons were killed in battle she famously replied, “I have more sons to give for the revolution.”

Santa Ifigenia is also the final resting place of Fidel Castro.

Santiago de Cuba’s monumental necropolis is a must-see for anyone wanting to better understand Cuba. Havana’s Colón cemetery may hold Cuba’s heart, but Santa Ifigenia holds its soul.

2. Cementerio Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

A cholera epidemic devastated Havana’s population in the mid-1800s. The local cemetery, Cementerio Espada, was not large enough to hold the epidemic’s victims whose numbers grew by the day. The city decided to clear land surrounding the Cementerio Espada and build a larger, planned cemetery over the existing Espada.

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The new cemetery, Cementerio Cristóbal Colón, named after the explorer, was designed by architect Calixto de Loira and built between 1871 and 1886 on 140 acres, enough space to continue growing into the next centuries. Up until that time in the mid-1800s, most middle and upper-class people were buried in churchyards as was the custom in Europe for centuries.

cuban cemetaries colon havana
Cementerio Cristóbal Colón. Photo: Talek Nantes

The first thing that strikes you as you wander the Colón cemetery is how it has managed to avoid the dilapidated appearance of the structures in Havana, the city that surrounds it. Since the cemetery was planned, the broad main avenue and smaller roads crisscross the cemetery like a small city. Over 500 blindingly white mausoleums topped by elaborate, dramatic statuary line both sides of the avenues.

One of the reasons for the outstanding beauty and quality of the statuary and mausoleums is that burial in the Colón Cemetery became a symbol of the family’s prestige, a once-in-a-lifetime (or after lifetime) opportunity for a family to display its wealth and power.

The Cementerio Colón has been the final resting place of the country’s famous and infamous since its creation.

The main avenue leads to the Central Chapel, an octagonally shaped structure poised gracefully at the cemetery’s geometric center. The Neo-Romanesque chapel is still used today even though it was built in the 1880s. The overall
impression is one of elegance and harmony.

The perfect example of the dramatic statuary found in the Cementerio Colón is the Monumento de los Bomberos, or firefighters’ monument. This large memorial commemorates the 25 firefighters who perished fighting a warehouse blaze in 1890.

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Erected in 1897, the monument includes four large figures representing self-sacrifice, pain, courage and martyrdom. To illustrate the level of detail in this, and other monuments, the face of every firefighter
that perished is carved into the base of the monument.

Another tomb worth noting is that of Amelia Goyri, referred to as La Milagrosa or The Miraculous Woman. Amelia Goyri died in childbirth in 1901 and was buried in Cementerio Colón along with her stillborn child at her feet. The legend is that when the tomb was opened some years later, the body of Amelia was as fresh as the day she was buried. Furthermore, the child was now in her arms. Word of this miraculous event spread, and her husband commissioned the statue of Amelia with the child in her arms.

For much of the 19th and 20th-centuries, Cienfuegos was one of the most important sugar-producing areas in Cuba. Many of the people buried in this cemetery were members of wealthy plantation families. Their tombs reveal a great deal of history about the city.

Since then, devotees have gathered at Amelia’s tomb to pray and ask for her help in a variety of quests, most notably fertility. There is a very specific way to ask Amelia’s help. You must knock on the tomb to call her
attention; next, you say your name out loud and ask for the favor silently. Lastly, you leave an offering, usually flowers, and walk away backwards so as not to show your back to Amelia. Amelia has enough devotees for her tomb to be one of the most visited in the cemetery.

The Cementerio Colón has been the final resting place of the country’s famous and infamous since its creation. Notable interments include heroes of Cuba’s War of Independence like Máximo Gómez; world chess champion, José Jose de Capablanca and Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay, the epidemiologist who determined that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitos.

3. Cementerio la Reina, Cienfuegos, Cuba

Opened in 1837 and declared a national monument in 1990, the small, elegant La Reina cemetery has some of the most exquisite funerary statuary seen anywhere in Cuba. This historic cemetery in Cienfuegos, in the center of the country is crumbling in some areas but still magnificent. It is a must-see in Cienfuegos.

Cementerio la Reina, Cienfuegos, Cuba
Cementerio la Reina, Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photo: Talek Nantes

Cienfuegos was founded by French citizens from Bordeaux and Louisiana. The only Cuban city founded by the French. It is interesting to read the names on the graves and see the strong French influence which is still
evident.

For much of the 19th and 20th-centuries, Cienfuegos was one of the most important sugar-producing areas in Cuba. Many of the people buried in this cemetery were members of wealthy plantation families. Their tombs reveal a great deal of history about the city.

The star attraction in La Reina is the tomb known as Sleeping Beauty. It is outstanding because of its remarkable statuary. Sleeping Beauty is a tribute to a 24-year-old woman who some say died of a broken heart (though others say she succumbed to a cholera epidemic). The legend of Sleeping Beauty is that when the young woman died early in her marriage, her husband was so consumed with grief that he refused to leave her gravesite. He languished there until he too passed away.

There is a caretaker at the front gate who will be happy to tell you the history of the cemetery as well as the legends surrounding some monuments. The caretaker is necessary because practitioners of the local Santeria religion, a religion brought to Cuba by enslaved Africans, sometimes disinter and steal bones necessary for their religious rituals.

Tomas Estrada Palma Santa Efigenia. Photo: Talek Nantes

The caretakers also double as guides and provide tours around the cemetery to discuss its rich history.

Taking a close look at the graves gives an additional glimpse of the city’s colonial past. Some tombs are marked with the regiment symbols of the Spanish armies that fought unsuccessfully to hold onto Cuba, Spain’s
richest colony, in the Cuban War of Independence.

La Reina is worth visiting for the history, culture and amazing statuary. It is also interesting to see what a small-town Cuban cemetery is like after seeing Havana’s Colón and Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia.

(Hero image photo credits: Jgarch under CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Talek Nantes is an Amazon best-selling author, digital content creator and founder of the travel blog, www.travelswithtalek.com. Talek’s personal and professional background have led her to travel to over 110 countries. She has lived and worked throughout the world. Talek speaks several languages, has an MBA and a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband in New York City and Miami. Talek offers culturally immersive tours to Cuba to share her heritage with others.

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