Friday, April 10, 2009

Dead in Cuba

Dead in Cuba

It was a family vacation and the gravedigger opened up the ossuary and gave my son a skull to hold. Later, he took flowers off a grave and presented one bloom each to my wife and daughter. Travelling in Cuba, we had stopped at a rundown cemetery outside the town of Cárdenas near the all-inclusive resort-crowded peninsula of Varadero. At the gate, two gravediggers stepped out to offer us a tour.

One gravedigger was short, built thick and low to the ground like a bulldozer, and had a head of thick, curly grey hair under his backwards ball cap. The other had a lanky, loping aspect to him, and had dark black skin and an easy smile. A laconic commentator on the other’s tour. Both were in their late middle age.

We spoke with them through our barely existent Spanish, through words that we could recognize from English, French, Latin, or some kind of Indo-European stew. We communicated through handsigns, gestures, and some intuitive understanding that comes from addressing fundamental experiences like life, death, sex, family, tragedy, pride, and humour. My family did a lot of reconstructing what we thought was being said while nodding and smiling profusely. We knew they were gravediggers because they pointed down and said “la tierra” (the earth) and made digging motions. Also, they hopped in and out of tombs as we walked around, and demonstrated an obvious pride in their knowledge of the place.

The first man took his hat off when he passed his family’s tomb and the grave of his mother. He mimed the large pregnant belly she must have had sixty years before and held up two fingers. He introduced us to his brother, also a gravedigger. The other finger. He showed us that the brother, his twin perhaps, had a bigger belly. Both of them were thick with muscle from years of digging, carrying, and climbing in and out of tombs.

Then he in fact did jump into a tomb in order explain something in Spanish about earth, poverty, families, and the washing of bones. As far as we could reconstruct, he was saying that poor people are buried in the ground and then disinterred two years later, their bones washed, and then kept in stone ossuary boxes. Families with money are never buried in the earth, but their bones are kept in a large stone box, some kind of sarcophagus. My daughter remembered, here in this communist country, the Animal Farm line about “some are more equal than others.” We all return to the earth, except for those who don’t.

Many families had small mausoleums above their tombs. A doctor had a room the size of a music practice room. Through its glass door, we could see an entire room set up like the doctor’s office. His white coat and stethoscope, medical texts, plaster walls with waiting room photographs, framed qualifications. Another grave had a room memorializing the teenager killed in a motorcycle accident. His painfully fresh-faced portrait was displayed above a small motorcycle protruding out of the wall. A sad message of love and devotion from his parents framed on a mantelpiece. An urn contained his remains. What ‘remains’? This one room in a whole house of memories, loss, and love of family.

“Here,” one of the gravediggers said, taking some leaves from a large graveside plant. “This is good for virility. It is a natural Viagra.” He took off his hat to show his hair. My wife thought he meant that since he and I both had grey hair, we could use the plant. I thought he meant that it would keep us from going bald. When we got home, my son used the coffee grinder to make a potion with the plant. As of this morning, my son isn’t bald.

They directed us to a corner of the graveyard. We thought they were showing us a section for Afro-Cubans and practitioners of Santeria, but it turned out to be a wall of tombs for Cuban soldiers who had fought in Africa, labeled a “Panteon de los Caidos por la Defense” (Pantheon of the Fallen Defenders). The wall looked quite impressive with stone drawers of dead soldiers stacked five high. “The tombs have no names?” I asked. The gravediggers showed us that on the opposite side, there were small signs casually leaning against the bottom of the wall, like pictures waiting to be hung. It seemed like these soldiers—or their names—had only a temporary place here. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was reminded of the families lovingly tracing the outlines of the names of the soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington.

Years ago at a restaurant in Dominican, I ordered some milk for my then two year-old son. My father was concerned that the milk might not be properly pasteurized and so he asked if it was processed and from a can or if it was obtained directly from a local farmer. The waitress spoke no English and my father spoke no Spanish. After a few mutually unintelligible exchanges, my father, in an effort to make himself understood, flapped his arms vigorously like wings and said “Was it flown in, or…” (now, madly simulating milking a cow) “did it come from a cow?” “Flown in? Or from a cow?” he repeated, flapping and milking even more insistently, trying to be understood. The waitress watched all of this impassively, regarding without expression the antics of this earnest but manic tourist. She nodded once, as if understanding, left, and then soon returned to neatly lay a teaspoon down beside my father’s plate. What she understood my father’s actions to mean, how flying and milking could represent a teaspoon, we’ll never know. But I like to tell this story to illustrate how beautifully ridiculous, how touchingly comic communication can be.

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