I don’t wish to sound like some sort of unhinged cemetery fetishist, but I love a good cemetery. All the art, culture and meaning that we devote to death is extraordinary; something that sets us apart as a species and, ironically, inspires a level of creativity that transcends day-to-day life and death itself.
Cemeteries are designed to accommodate the living as well as the dead, otherwise why expend such energy making them so attractively solemn? Cuba has several interesting colonial-era cemeteries worth exploring for their history and artistry. Cienfuegos’ oldest cemetery is no exception, elegant funerary art shows off the wealth of those buried here. Interestingly, most statues seem to be of female figures.
It may only be a fraction of the size of Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, and without the luminaries who inhabit it, but the Cemetario or Necrópolis de la Reina makes up for its diminutive size with an outsized amount of atmosphere. Built in 1837, and named for Queen Isabella II of Spain, the Cemetery of the Queen is a characterful place. For a cemetery at least.
The cemetery is filled with wonderful marble statues, the white stone gleaming under a hot sun; gracefully decaying tombs are surrounded by elegant iron railings. Amidst the many grand and ornate graves of local people, and those of patriots from the Wars of Independence with Spain, sits the most famous grave of all: the burial place of La Bella Durmiente, the Sleeping Beauty.
This is the grave of a 24-year-old woman who died in 1907, allegedly of a broken heart – no Latin American cemetery would be complete without a story shrouded in myth. Of the many exquisite statues, La Bella Durmiente is famous for its refined carving. It was made from Carrara marble and carved in Genoa, Italy, before being shipped to Cuba. In her hand are three poppies, traditional symbols of sleep and death.
The cemetery became a national monument in 1990, just in time for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the implosion of the Cuban economy. Like much else in Cuba, it has fallen into disrepair and many of the tombs are slowly decaying in the tropical climate. Recently though efforts have been made at renovation, and some tombs have been returned to their former glory, but all that Italian marble costs a lot to maintain.