June 4, 2006

bones and dust




October 2004: Havana, Cuba

On one of my wanderings around Havana, I visited the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, a huge cemetary filled with gleaming white above-ground graves and crumbling crypts. I have always enjoyed exploring cemetaries and I make a point to visit at least one whenever I travel abroad. I am curious about how a people buries its dead. And I like to imagine the lives that were lived and lost before I ever came into existence.

Strolling through the Necropolis, I found the graves of some Cuban martyrs and Cecelia Valdez, a famous heroine from a Cuban novel of the same name which I had studied in college. I never knew she was an actual person.

As I was heading back to the main entrance of the cemetary, I passed a building which was filled with small concrete boxes, stacked precariously on top of each other. I knew what they were, and my morbid curiosity drew me to the entrance. There was a little old man outside, hacking away at the weeds with his machete. I peered inside and saw some of the boxes stacked on the floor. Some of them had no lids. I inched closer, my skin beginning to prickle. I peeked inside one of the boxes. Was that a pelvis? Yes. And a femur. Bones. Human bones. Of course. It was a cemetary. But why were they out like this, stacked in boxes?

I went outside and asked the old man. He seemed pleased to have the opportunity to take a break and show me around. He explained that in Cuba, there isn't enough room to bury the dead (just like in Colombia.) They are buried for only two years, then dug up so someone else can use the burial plot for two years. If the family has money, then the bones are taken to a private place. If not, the bones are stacked in these boxes awaiting burial in a mass grave.

As he was explaining this, we were walking amidst the aisles of boxes, each labeled with the name of its occupant and the date of death. All the dates were from the late 1990s to 2002. The old man lifted the lids from some of the boxes and showed me the contents: black bones and bits of deteriorated cloth. We turned a corner and he cursed. Someone or something had knocked down a stack of boxes. There were bones all over the floor, covered with black dust which I took to be what was left of the rotted flesh. He grabbed a skull which had yellowed tufts of hair still stuck to it and placed it on the lid of another box.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio! I thought.

The old man turned to me. "You'd better enjoy your life as much as you can. That’s all we have. Life is for living, for loving, for drinking, for dancing. Enjoy it now because this is what you will become. This is what we all become. Bones and dust."

"Yes, I know," I said, staring at the skull. There were the eye sockets, covered with a black crust of dust. Who was this person? What kind of life had he or she lived? Where did his or her spirit go? I shivered. "I try."

Then he began to scoop up armfuls of bones with his bare hands. I watched him, stunned. For him it was as natural as scooping up rocks or dirty clothes. These were people, or what was left of people, anyway. He brushed past me and as he did so, he grabbed my arm to steady himself. I looked at my arm, at the black ashy prints of his fingers he had left there. It somehow felt wrong to just brush the dust of another human being away. I decided not to brush the dust away. To just leave it until I took my cold shower that night.

I felt marked, somehow blessed.

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