Collapsing coffins mar Cuba's funerals

 

 Hector Velasco, AFP

 

Havana.- As deacon at a Cuban cemetery, Miguel Pons has the difficult task of consoling the bereaved -- and calming their anger when the coffins break.

 

Besides officiating the funeral services at his chapel in Havana's picturesque Christopher Columbus graveyard, the 61-year-old often has to help shoulder the casket to stop it coming apart with the deceased inside.

 

Made of weak, green wood and lacking handles, the coffins are a poignant indication of how Cuba's public funeral service has never recovered from decades of mistrust between the Church and the communist government.

 

People are fed up.

 

"I sometimes have to go out and hold the service in the street because the driver tells me, 'Father, we can't get the casket out. The corpse is very heavy and I'm afraid the bottom's going to fall through,'" Pons said.

 

In Cuba, funerals are provided exclusively, and practically free of charge, by the state. But with a lack of investment and decent coffin wood, it is a scrappy business.

Families who come to bury their loved ones lament that the coffins lack nails or are draped in threadbare cloth, Pons said.

 

Sometimes, the glass window in the casket comes loose and drops onto the corpse.

 

"People complain to me. They say, 'Father, look at this!'" Pons said. "And I say to them, 'I know it is very painful. But what can we do?'"

 

- Call for action -

 

Burials are an important issue in Cuba, with its aging population and religious sensibilities.

 

Beyond the many historic colonial churches, African spiritual traditions of honoring the dead still survive. These mingle with the Catholicism imported by Spanish conquerors centuries ago.

 

Under communism, Cuba went through a period as an officially atheist country from 1976 until a constitutional reform changed it to a secular state in 1992.

 

The Church's fortunes improved and many Cubans started coming to the chapels again for funerals.

 

But now the public system is showing the strain.

 

In December, the issue reached the country's legislature, where lawmaker Alexis Lorente presented a formal call to improve funeral services.

 

He was quoted by the state newspaper Granma as listing citizens' numerous points of "dissatisfaction" with cremations, flowers, food at wakes and the shortage of hearses.

 

Lorente told AFP that authorities had since launched "a program to repair all the funeral vehicles, and to improve service in funeral homes and the wood used for the coffins."

 

- Crammed crematorium -

 

Except for the lucky few that have a family plot, bodies are buried in common graves, stacked up with strangers.

 

After two years, the decomposed remains are dug up and relatives are allowed to take away the bones, to keep them in an urn or store them in an ossuary.

 

"When you exhume the person, you take them away in your box. Then at last they have privacy," said Pons.

 

One 70-year-old man told AFP how he buried his mother in November. He nearly keeled over, he said -- with rage rather than grief.

 

Asking not to be named for fear of retribution, the man recalled how his mother's body lay for seven hours before a hearse came to collect it.

 

"We wanted to cremate her but they told us there was no availability. We had to bury her instead."

 

- Noisy chapels of rest -

 

People still talk about how things were before Fidel Castro's revolution prevailed in 1959, in the days when funerals could be privately paid for.

 

Pons said many Cubans want the state to improve its service and would be willing to pay some of their meager wages for better final farewells.

 

Cuba, which has been gradually opening up its economy, restored diplomatic relations with the United States last year. But on an island where the average salary is $20 a month, few can spare the thousands of dollars needed for an imported coffin or a family tomb.

 

In Havana funeral parlors, coffins are leaned against the wall instead of being laid out flat in the center of the room.

 

Wakes often resemble rowdy parties, with mourners talking loudly and drinking as they sit around tables.

 

Pons is waiting for things to change to the point where his church can set up a "dignified chapel of rest," he said.

 

"Somewhere where people will be quiet and where you can pray."

 

 

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