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Posted May 11, 2009 by publisher in Cuban Architecture

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El Nuevo Herald Staff

All but uncared for four decades since Fidel Castro came to power, the 137-year-old Cristóbal Colón Cemetery of Havana is facing one of the most difficult challenges in its history: the indignity of old age.

Through much hardship, the burial ground has managed to continue operating with more than 50 burials a day, though it is badly in need of repair.

Since 2007, cremations have been carried out in the Guanabacoa municipality, just outside the capital for about 350 Cuban pesos, or $84.

On this May morning, a refreshing breeze blows through the Cuban capital, lifting the oppressive heat of the day and offering refreshment for a stroll through Colón, one of the three largest cemeteries in the world and among Cuba’s most visited sites.

Foreign travelers pay the equivalent of $6 to visit the cemetery. They must find their own way through the Romanesque streets and avenues that crisscross the grounds.

It can be a haphazard experience because the caretakers recently ran out of guidebooks and other printed materials.

‘‘As time passes, we lose more money. It is a shameful situation, because we have requested [more pamphlets] for some time and nothing has arrived,’’ said one of the caretakers, who asked not to be identified.

Cemetery administrators could be reaping considerable revenue. It is estimated that 1.5 million people visit the 138-acre grounds every year.

Built in 1871 under the direction of Spanish architect Calixto de Loira, the graveyard features a main gate that displays an image of Our Lady of Mercy. The portal, with its three Byzantine arches, has been under renovation for the past several months.

An octagonal chapel, the only one of its kind in Havana, is also being restored, albeit slowly. Funeral services continue in the chapel, though for shorter periods than normal because of the ongoing reconstruction.

And there are graves that always draw throngs. Many illustrious figures in the country’s political history and culture lie at rest in the vast graveyard.

One special tomb is the crypt holding the remains of Amelia Goyre de la Hoz, who was eight months’ pregnant when she died in 1901 at age 24.

She is known as La Milagrosa, or ‘‘The Miraculous One,’’ because according to local lore, when she was buried her child was placed at her feet.

Years later, her body was exhumed, and legend has it that the child was found nestled in her arms.

The faithful believe that La Milagrosa looks after them and answers prayers. At her tomb, always adorned with flowers, visitors seeking La Milagrosa’s aid perform a ritual by touching the tomb three times, walking around it, while never turning their back to the crypt after making a solemn request.

‘‘There are no miracles without a little faith,’’ said Don Agustin, who ekes out a living at Colón charging families for the maintenance and repair of tombs.

Agustin, in his early 70s and without a family, has no plans to retire.

Though there is enough work to stay busy, many of those buried at Colón in the 19th and 20th centuries no longer have living relatives, or if they do, they are abroad in exile. In a far corner of the cemetery is the grave of William Morgan, the famous Yanqui Comandate, who helped Castro win the revolution in 1959.

The burly Ohioan who led his own column during the fighting was executed three years later when he began opposing the regime’s alliance with the Soviet Union.

But for Agustin, Havana’s famous realm of the dead is more than a means to earn a few pesos. It offers freedom.

‘‘This is the perfect place to breathe freely and speak with your deceased,’’ he said. ``Because when you leave the cemetery, out there, it is another world.’‘

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