The cemetery, also known as the Cristobal Colón Necropolis (Columbus Cemetery), is one of the largest necropolises in the world. Named after Christopher Columbus, this 140-acre (0.6 km²) cemetery is known for its many elaborately carved memorials. It is estimated that the cemetery has over 500 large mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. Today, the cemetery has more than 800,000 graves and one million people are buried there. Colon Cemetery is one of the great historical cemeteries of the world, and is generally considered, from a historical and architectural point of view, the most important cemetery in Latin America.
Its construction began around 1860, and the design competition was won by Spanish architect Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. He was also the first person to be buried in the cemetery when he died before completing his work. The amazing atmosphere of this place is created by a thicket of miniature Greek temples, columns, urns, statues of angels and madonnas. The mausoleums are a mixture of neo-Gothic and classicism, and faithful dogs carved at the foot of many tombstones. With limited space in the cemetery, burials are expensive and after three years the remains are removed, packed and placed in a large storage shed.
Attention should be paid to the monument to eight young medical students executed in 1871 for desecrating the grave of a Spanish journalist – Justice does not have the obligatory blindfold and the weight she holds is clearly tilted to one side.
Despite its elegance and grandeur, the cemetery hides as much as it shows. Empty graves and desecrated family chapels dot the cemetery, even in the most prominent alleys farthest from the main streets. Many of these graves belong to exiled families, whose maintenance of the burial places of their deceased loved ones was made difficult by the stay abroad to which they fled.
The entrance gate to the cemetery is called the “Gate of Peace”. This monument is decorated with reliefs and sculptures, some of which have symbolic meaning. There are inverted torches as a sign of the end of life, laurel branches and winged hourglasses as a sign of the irreversible nature of earthly life. The work symbolizing the three virtues of faith, hope and love bears the Latin inscription Janus Sum Pacis, from which the door takes its name. Just after the entrance, an obelisk marks the tomb of General Maximo Gomez, the hero of the Cuban war of independence.
In front of the main entrance, at the intersection of the main avenues Avenida Cristobal Colón, Obispo Espada and Obispo Fray Jacinto, is the central chapel built on the model of the Duomo in Florence. On each side, rectangular streets lead geometrically to the quadrants of the cemetery, where the dead are divided into different zones according to their rank and social status, such as priests, soldiers, fraternities, rich, poor, children, pagans and convicts. The best preserved and most beautiful tombs are found on or near these main roads, just like the villas in a real city.
The cemetery of Colon houses a 23-meter high monument dedicated to the firemen who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890.
The legend of the Milagrosa
A place of pilgrimage much visited by Catholics is the cemetery of Amelia Goyri de Adot. She died on May 3, 1901 at the age of 23 while giving birth to her son. Her child also died. They were buried together in a coffin. Her son was laid at her feet.
Her husband José Vicente Adot commissioned a sculpture to commemorate her death, with an image of Amalia holding her child, leaning on a cross. He was desperate and inconsolable. He could not believe that she was dead. He went to the cemetery every day and tapped on one of the bronze rings attached to the grave to let people know he was there. He practiced this ritual for 17 years, until his death.
According to the legend, when the grave was reopened after some time to be emptied, the child was in the arms of his mother, and their bodies were in an exceptional state.
Cubans believe that Amelia can grant their wish and many pilgrims visit her grave to have their wish or their great love granted. They also tap the grave with the copper ring as her husband did, place flowers on her grave and make their wish. Visitors then walk backwards away from the grave to avoid turning their backs on the white statue of Amelia.
How to get to the cemetery
Cementerio de Colón, Calle Zapata I Calle 12, Vedado, every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.