In the colonial city of Cienfuegos, in central Cuba, you’ll find a cemetery full of exquisite statuary. Opened in 1837, Cementerio la Reina is now crumbling in many areas due to lack of maintenance. But it’s still easy to see the splendor that it once was.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cienfuegos was one of the most important sugar producing areas in Cuba. Many of the people buried in this cemetery were members of the wealthy plantation families. Their tombs reflect not only the status of the people buried there, but they also tell quite a bit about the history of the city, as most cemeteries do.
The most outstanding feature of the cemetery by far is the remarkable statuary. One particularly striking example is the monument called “Sleeping Beauty,” a tribute to a 24-year-old woman who some like to say died of a broken heart (though others say she succumbed to a cholera epidemic).
Taking a close look at the graves gives an additional glimpse of the city’s colonial past. Many of the names on the graves are French. This reflects the city’s founding by French immigrants from Louisiana and Bordeaux in 1819. Some tombs are marked with the regiment symbols of the Spanish armies that fought unsuccessfully to hold onto Cuba, Spain’s richest colony, in the Cuban War of Independence.
The cemetery is watched over by vigilant custodians. These caretakers are needed to keep the local Santería adherents from disturbing the tombs in search of human bones, a key ingredient in their religious ceremonies. Because it’s the only major cemetery in Cuba where the tombs are placed above ground due to the unusually high water table, it makes it easier for adherents of a local religion to ransack tombs in search of human bones to use in their rituals.
The caretakers also double as guides, and will give little tours and talk about the cemetery’s rich history.
Know Before You Go
It’s about a 20-minute walk from the center of Cienfuegos to the cemetery on Avenue 50. Another option is to take a horse-drawn carriage or a bicycle-taxi, both of which you can flag down on any Cienfuegos street.