Denver Post
Sunday, February 09, 2003

City of dead holds history of Havana

 By Ellen Sweets
 Denver Post Staff Writer

 NECROPOLIS CRISTOBAL COLON is Havana's city of the dead.

 Located in the Vedado section of Havana - where many of its current occupants once lived - Colon Cemetery was founded in 1868 and named for Christopher Columbus. More than a burial ground, Colon is a historical catalog of the forces that shaped Havana, and it gives context to the living.

 Mario Coyula has visited this city within a city since he was a university student. A leading figure in Cuba's urban design and policy for more than 40 years, Coyula finds Colon a place of special significance, both emotionally and artistically.

 To walk the streets of this 136-year-old cemetery with Coyula is to be introduced to its varied and storied citizens, including the cemetery's Spanish architect, Calixto de
 Loira, who became Colon's first occupant when he died before his work was completed.

 Originally a Roman Catholic cemetery, Colon was laid out in quadrants, suggesting a crucifix. The finest monuments were to line the main streets, just as in a true urban
 center, where the best houses line grand boulevards.

 Entry is through the Gate of Peace, a trio of giant Romanesque-Byzantine arches that lead the way into a broad, tree-lined avenue. All manner of notables are interred
 here: revolutionary heroes, Spanish bishops, even politician Eduardo Chibas, an anti-corruption crusader who committed suicide on-air during a radio broadcast in 1951.

 At Chibas' funeral, a young malcontent leapt onto the grave to denounce the government. It was Fidel Castro's first public appearance.

 For $1, visitors can spend as much time amid the vast expanse of monuments and markers as stamina permits, traversing its endless streets and avenues.

 "This is one of the great (historical cemeteries) of the world," says Coyula, a former visiting Robert F. Kennedy professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School of Government.

 "There is the one in Genoa, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Pere Lachaise in Paris, and Colon here in Havana," he continues. "I used to come here to relax. I don't associate these places with death. I associate them with history. And, sometimes, with art."

 It is not difficult to see why. The powerful main entrance stands sentry over Christopher Columbus Avenue. The center three-story gate is adorned with reliefs and
 sculptures in Carrara marble by de Loira's collaborator, noted Cuban sculptor Jose Vilalta de Saavedra.

 An inscription reads, "Pale death enters the palaces of kings and the cabins of the poor the same."

 Beyond this gate are art, history and humor. Look in one direction and you see the resting place set aside for the Counts de Mortera, members of a prominent family from colonial days, buried next to the head of a nouveau-riche family.

 "People are amused by the two families being next to one another," Coyula says. "Alfred Hornedo chose a replica of Rodin's sculpture called 'The Thinker' to represent
 him. This was a man not known for original thinking."

 Not far away is a scattering of monuments representing different families but very similar in style. They feature truncated columns with a floral wreath that seems to have slid halfway down the shaft, symbolizing a life cut short.

 "There is both language and rhetoric here," Coyula notes as he points out varying styles.

 Coyula has family and friends buried in Colon Cemetery. And, not insignificantly, he designed and installed the last monument to be placed within this particular city's vast cast-iron and concrete walls.

 More than 400 chapels for families, immigrants and associations are distributed throughout the cemetery. Monuments acknowledge telephone workers, merchant sailors,
 baseball players, dockworkers, firefighters and the Workers Society of La Tropical Brewery.

 On a slightly overcast and breezy midmorning, one cortege after another makes its mournful way through the gate. First, it is an ancient limousine piled high with
 multicolored floral arrangements. A half-dozen coughing, sputtering cars follow the hearse into the cemetery and on to the chapel.

 Moments later, another car arrives, this time followed by dozens of mourners walking behind the bed of a truck bearing a coffin. In less than a half-hour, a bier pulled by
 a horse is trailed by maybe 100 men, women and children.

 They make their way past a perfect copy of Michelangelo's "Pieta," situated diagonally across from an art-deco style compound that was built in the 1950s and never used. The wealthy family that had it built fled Cuba soon after Castro rose to power. According to stories, several people have tried to buy the plot, but the family, still living in Miami, refuses to sell.

 Nearby is the Chapel of Constante Ribalaigua, a friend of Ernest Hemingway and founder of the Floridita, a famous Hemingway haunt in Old Havana. He also is credited with having invented the daiquiri.

 As a fourth cortege moves up the central drive, voices are once again lowered to a whisper. Several people stop at the decidedly deco mausoleum of Catalina Laso,
 whose great true love in the early 1900s was someone other than her husband, a circumstance that forced the couple to flee to France, where society was more forgiving.

 "They lived in France for 20 years, then, when it was safe to return, they came back to Cuba and built a mansion in Paseo," Coyula explains. "A famous Cuban gardener even created a 'Catalina Lasa' rose for her."

 When she died, her husband had the French artisan Rene Lalique design a marble tomb for her, with her rose carved in crystal and placed in skylights on the half-dome.
 Sculpted black granite doors, also by Lalique, reflect the upscale tastes the couple developed during their exiled years in France.

 Landscape architect J.C.N. Forester designed the gardens of the couple's 1927 villa in Vedado and brought red sand from the Nile River for the pink stucco on exterior

 Although the granite doors have cracked over the years - some say because they were too heavy to withstand settling - the crypt still commands attention.

 Lasa was embalmed and laid out on a marble slab inside the mausoleum so that each day when her husband visited, the sun shone through the yellow rose onto her face. When he died, he was buried standing next to her so he could continue gazing upon her.

 Almost directly across from the mausoleum is a triangular monument belonging to the Familia Falla Bonet, which features a bronze door on which has been sculpted
 bearers carrying a casket into a catacomb. The door is flanked by a marble sculpture on each side - "Sorrow" on the left, "Life" on the right.

 At the apex of the triangle is a bronze Christ that seems to be ascending, pulling the life on Earth heavenward. The figure is the work of the noted Spanish sculptor
 Mariano Benlliure. Just behind it is a pyramid, introducing an Egyptian element to an already eclectic architectural gumbo.

 Not far away is the curious grave of Luisa V. Antonia, an ardent domino player, who had a fatal heart attack when she misplayed a double-three domino and lost a major game. Yes, that's a marble double-three marking her spot. Next to her is "Consagracion" ("Consecration"), the grave of famous Cuban artist Antonio Boada. If you want to know where Cuban chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca is buried, look for the white marble chess king.

 A much frequented spot, elevated almost to shrine status, is the burial place of Amelia Goyri de Adot, who died in childbirth in 1901. The infant, who also died, was buried at his mother's feet. Her husband commissioned a sculpture to commemorate Amelia's death, featuring her likeness leaning on a cross, holding her child.

 According to legend, when the bodies were disinterred - after two years bodies are usually removed to make room for new corpses - the infant had allegedly moved from her feet to her chest. Skeptics say the shift might have occurred as a result of settling. Believers say it was a miracle.

 Somehow, this story has come to symbolize a mother's mystical gift for intercession on behalf of children.

 Some say you will have luck if you rub the baby's bottom; other's say if you touch her skirt. Still others are trying to figure out how the death of a mother and child can be interpreted as lucky.

 Angling off from the main street that leads to the chapel, an open space is dominated by tall, metal flagpoles flying large, metal Cuban flags. This is the space Coyula, in a collaboration with two colleagues, architect Emilio Escobar and sculptor Jose Villa, created as tribute to students killed on March 13, 1957, during an unsuccessful
 assassination attempt on dictator Fulgencio Batista.

 "The idea was to create a commentary on the power of the largest revolutionary feat in Havana in the 1950s," Coyula says. "The attempt failed, and most of the people
 involved were killed. Relatives wanted all of the original participants buried together, and they wanted some sort of tribute to their efforts."

 A plaza of cobblestones represents the urban fighting forces, and one representing leaves of yagruma trees is surrounded by mounds of green grass, representing rural
 guerrillas. Every March 13, the stainless steel flags cast a shadow along a line of green marble until it marks 3:15 p.m., the time of the assault.

 "It is very simple but open to many meanings," Coyula says. "We wanted to do something contemporary, a nonconventional monument with nonconventional materials to
 commemorate a revolutionary feat. It also tells another piece of Cuban history - one that Emilio and I lived through as students."