Cuba’s Colón Cemetery holds many surprises . . .
When you think of the famous explorer Christopher Columbus, a cemetery in Cuba may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But that is who this cemetery is named after. The full name of the cemetery in Spanish is El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón.
This huge 140-acre cemetery is noted for its elaborate white sculptures and intricate architecture. There are estimated to be more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults and more than 800,000 monuments in the cemetery.
BillionGraves fan Susan Sims of Iowa shared gravestone photos from her visit to the El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, Cuba.
She said, “This is a famous cemetery but it is difficult for most people to visit since it is in Cuba. My photos don’t really do this vast place any justice; we only had a short time to peek in. It’s huge and astonishingly beautiful.”
Cuba’s Colón Cemetery History
The Colón is a Catholic cemetery that was planned in 1876, following a cholera outbreak when the city suddenly needed more burial space.
Since space was at a premium in this bustling city, the new cemetery was built right on top of the older Espada Cemetery. One of the first things to be built at Colón was a huge catacomb of 526 niches to receive the deceased from Espada cemetery.
Ironically, the very first burial at Colón Cemetery was the cemetery’s architect himself – Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso – who died before the project was finished. He was only 32 years old.
The number of interments in Colón Cemetery is estimated to be more than 2.4 million.
Plots were originally assigned according to social class. Specific sections were designated for priests, soldiers, brotherhoods, the wealthy, the poor, infants, victims of epidemics, pagans, and the condemned.
This class separation eventually became a way for wealthy families to display their prestige and power with elaborate monuments and mausoleums.
In spite of the cemetery’s flamboyant monuments along the main avenues, The Colón Cemetery hides as much as it displays. Unfortunately, there are large sections of the cemetery that are overgrown, vandalized, and in ruins.
But for here and now, we’ll focus on the amazing art and architecture of Cuba’s Colón Cemetery.
Symbolism at Colón Cemetery
Even though our own ancestors may not be Cuban, understanding the symbolism on the gravestones at Colón Cemetery can help us to understand the faith and beliefs of our own ancestors. In fact, it can make visiting any cemetery more interesting!
This gravestone at Colón Cemetery has many symbols on it.
The entire monument is a pyramid shape with Mary and baby Jesus at the pinnacle – a Catholic symbol of putting them on a plateau above all others.
Cross, Chalice, and Communion
The hooded monk on the right holds a cross in one hand and a chalice with a holy communion wafer in the other.
The chalice represents partaking of wine as a symbol of Christ’s blood being shed as an atonement for mankind.
At the center of the cross, are the letters IHS. IHS stands for the first three letters (iota-eta-sigma) of the name Jesus in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. The name of Jesus is at the heart of the intersection of the cross, meaning he is central to atonement and forgiveness.
(To learn more about cemetery crosses, in BillionGraves’ most popular blog post, click HERE.)
Boy with Crossed Arms
The boy in this sculpture is approaching baby Jesus with crossed arms.
In the Catholic faith, the unconverted, unbaptized, or unrepentant may not receive the sacrament of holy communion. However, they may line up to approach the priest for a blessing. To show the priest that they are not worthy to partake of the sacrament, but would instead like a blessing, they cross their arms.
The robed woman on the left is holding an anchor. Anchors on a gravestone are symbolic of hope.
The Bible references an anchor in connection with hope in Hebrews 6: 18-19:
“. . . lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast . . .”
Those without hope may be like a ship tossed on the sea, their emotions being carried in every direction. The anchor would remind family members visiting the grave to hold on to the hope of seeing their loved one again.
Faith, Hope, and Charity
When the symbols on this gravestone are understood together, they represent faith, hope, and charity.
The monk with the symbols of the atonement and sacrament represents faith.
The nun with the anchor represents hope.
Mary, Jesus, and the children represent charity. Charity is the pure love of Christ and is the greatest of all gifts.
Learn more about gravestone symbolism by clicking HERE.
The Firefighter’s Monument
The tallest monument at Colón Cemetery is a legacy to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890.
When fire broke out at Isasi store in Havana, firefighters asked about the presence of explosive or flammable materials before entering the building. The owner assured them that none were present.
So firefighters and neighbors began to work side-by-side to extinguish the fire. But before long, two terrible explosions rocked the facility. Walls crumbled to the ground. That night 32 people died of which 25 were firefighters.
Following that tragic night, the community and authorities agreed to build a monument in honor of the victims’ heroism.
In 1897, more than 10,000 people attended the dedication of this tomb. It is made of Carrara marble and is surrounded by chains that are symbolic of the tears of the Cuban people.
Angels at Colón Cemetery
Angels are considered to be God’s messengers to the living.
Some of the most touching graveside monuments are cemetery angels. These angels appear in many forms.
There are angels dressed in flowing robes with feathery wings and joyful smiles. Others are serious guardians of the deceased, bearing swords. Some carry crosses or flowers. Some angels sit in front of scrolls with pens poised in their hands as they keep a written record of all we do and say.
This waking angel reaches out to take the hand of Christ, symbolic of the resurrection day.
To learn more about cemetery angels in a BillionGraves’ blog post, click HERE.
A Sleeping Mother Awakes
The most visited site at Colón Cemetery is the grave of Señora Amelia Goyri, better known as “La Milagrosa The Miraculous”.
According to legend, when Señora Goyri died in childbirth in May 1901, her baby also died and was buried at her feet. When the grave was later exhumed, the baby was found in her arms.
Each year, thousands of visitors come to the grave. Many of them leave baby clothes and diapers as a token of respect. The cemetery then donates the clothes to a local church from which they are distributed to orphaned children.
Wealthy families in Havana built private mausoleums as an alternative to family plots.
The mausoleums at Colón Cemetery are diverse and were built in these architectural styles:
- Egyptian Revival
- Classical Revival
- Gothic Revival
- Art Nouveau
- Art Deco
This one reminds me of a fancy wedding cake!
Sadly, some mausoleums are resold as burial locations on the Cuban black market by people who don’t actually own them. Many of the mausoleums being sold are tombs that have been abandoned.
Tombs in good condition are sold for up to $2,000 on the black market. That is the equivalent of about eight years of salary in Cuba on average.
This family mausoleum, built by multimillionaire and philanthropist Eutimio Falla Bonet, is an eclectic blend of styles.
The building is an Egyptian Revival-style pyramid.
Learn more about Egyptian cemetery symbolism by clicking HERE.
Statues of Mary and Jesus
Does this statue look familiar? It should.
This gravestone monument from Christopher Columbus Cemetery (Cemetario de Colon) in Havana, Cuba is a replica of the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican City.
The original Pietà is a work of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding the body of her son Jesus after the crucifixion.
If your ancestor’s grave has a sculpture of religious figures, try to determine which religion it represents. It may lead you to nearby church records that will help you discover even more ancestors.
A similar, but smaller, Pietà replica is in a niche in the chapel at Colón Cemetery.
To learn more about cemetery statues, click HERE to read BillionGraves’ blog post titled “Portraits in Stone”.
We Need Your Help to Preserve History!
Both the beauty and the challenges at Cuba’s Colón Cemetery are similar to many cemeteries across the world.
Due to the lack of funding for cemetery preservation, the deterioration of monuments, and the loss of original owners, invaluable pieces of art, architecture, and culture are endangered. We need your help to preserve the history found on gravestones around the world before it is too late!
Would you please take photos of gravestones at your local cemetery? Click on BillionGraves.com/volunteer to get started.
You are welcome to do this at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed. If you still have questions after you have clicked on the link to get started, you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com. We’ll be happy to help you!
Are you planning a group service project? Email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com for more resources. We can also help you find a cemetery that still needs to have photos taken.
I hope you have enjoyed this tour of Cuba’s Colón Cemetery and have a great time exploring cemeteries wherever you are!
Happy Cemetery Hopping!