By Ray Sanchez | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
(original title: Family feels entitled to someone else’s vault in Cuba’s Colon Cemetery)
Even in socialist Cuba, eternal rest has a high price.
The potential sale of a 10-by-14-foot granite and marble vault at historic Colon Cemetery speaks to the hardscrabble way of life on the island, the long and painful legacy of family separation and the determination of many Cubans to improve their lives by whatever means necessary.
The vault’s title is in the name of a frail but lucid 87-year-old woman named Constance, who has been in the care of a middle-age couple for more than a decade.
Years ago, Constance signed over power of attorney to Manny, a local government bureaucrat in his 60s who, along with his wife, looked after the old woman. Manny and his wife, Amparo, who is in her 40s, asked that they not be identified fully because he still works for the state.
The couple hope to use the power of attorney to legally transfer the vault’s ownership to them. They then plan to sell their walk-in-closet-size property in one of Latin America’s most renowned cemeteries for thousands of dollars.
Amparo insisted that Constance gave her family the title in return for providing care — checking up on her, taking her to the doctor and even taking her into their home for two months. The woman’s only son lives in the United States and hasn’t visited in more than a decade, she said.
“Listen, Constance is 87,” said Amparo, seated in her living room during a brief blackout. “She’s perfectly lucid but I do what I want with her. So you understand, Constance is like property to us. If I don’t take advantage of this, the state will take over the vault, but I was the one who cared for her.”
The burial vault is in a prime spot, a short walk from the tomb of La Milagrosa (the Miraculous One), Amelia Goyri, a young heiress who forsook her fortune to marry the man she loved, only to die in childbirth in 1901. It is the most visited tomb at Colon, attracting scores of pilgrims who line up to leave gladiolas and engraved marble plaques for Goyri, who they say grants miracles.
A cemetery official, who asked not to be identified, said the sale of burial vaults at Colon is common.
“The entire process can take 20 days,” he said. “A lot of people have titles that are not legally theirs and they try to sell the properties. There are a lot of swindlers out there.”
Cemetery historian Teresa Labarca said legal sales of some of the more than 53,000 burial properties at Colon have ranged from $600 to $1,700. Amparo and Manny think they can do better, adding that sums above the legally agreed price are sometimes exchanged under the table.
Though Colon is one of 20 cemeteries in the capital, it handles 80 percent of the city’s burials each year, Labarca said. The grounds are so saturated that the state had to take over the giant vaults of people whose families left after the revolution.
“The state took over the vaults of associations and clubs — the auto club and motor club and a lot of the burial clubs of the bourgeoisie — and turned them into collective vaults,” he said. “People without property have to be buried somewhere.“Amparo said she hoped to use money from the sale to buy Constance a smaller vault.
“The money is really for whatever we need,” she said. “We’ll go see her sometimes while she’s alive, and take her a carton of juice or something. But the money is for things we need around the house, for repairs.”
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