(Photo: © Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive)

Greetings from Havana in 1898, where American soldiers fresh from the Spanish-American War hung out in a cemetery fondling human skulls. 

The postcard above, which comes from the Burns Archive’s death-focused photography collection, shows three such soldiers standing on a 30-foot deep pile of skeletons at Colon Cemetery. At the time, the price of a grave at the cemetery, which was founded 22 years earlier, was $10 for five years. If, after this period, the family of the deceased didn’t pay up for the remains to stay buried longer, the skeleton would be dug up and its bones piled onto a big heap in the ever-growing boneyard.

This “pay up or be dug up” policy was common practice throughout the crowded cemeteries of Europe, but largely unknown to the American soldiers visiting Cuba. Though death was a part of normal life in the United States,” says Dr. Stanley Burns, owner of the Burns Archive, due to the ample land available in the United States, Americans buried their deceased for good and “didn’t play with their bones afterwards.”

To the soldiers hanging out in post-war Havana, though, the Colon Cemetery boneyard was a real novelty. It became a tourist attraction, and posing for a souvenir photo atop the giant pile of human remains was just part of the experience. “There were many postcards like this,” says Burns. “It was a popular thing to do.” But sometimes, the Americans got a little carried away.

“The soldiers often removed skulls and bones and drove through the streets of Havana displaying them,” Burns writes in Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism, co-authored with Elizabeth A. Burns. In response to this disrespectful behavior, American military commander General Brooke ordered the soldiers to stop stealing skulls and femurs from the boneyard and requested that the pile of human remains be covered. By 1900, the boneyard had been shielded from would-be plunderers.

Because Colon Cemetery is so crowded with graves—over 800,000 across its 140 acres—it still maintains a policy of disinterring buried remains in order to save space. Three years after someone is laid to rest, their bones are dug up, boxed, and placed in storage—out of visitors’ reach.